By Jordyn Bradley
Roché Kester has a daily routine: wake up, eat breakfast, drink her coffee, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed, do it all again the next day. It’s nothing unique or special, but it’s what she does.
As a queer South African, Kester said she wishes stories in the media portrayed her community doing mundane, everyday tasks like these. But they usually don’t.
When asked how queer South Africans are portrayed in the media, Kester, the director of LGBTI at the Office of Gauteng Premier, rolled her eyes and said, “Crying, dying or marching for pride.” In her eyes, South African media only show stories of queer people being beaten and killed, or plastered in rainbows.
A common saying in the journalism industry is, if it bleeds, it leads. The implication of that statement is that sensationalized, dramatized stories are what make headlines and what sell.
“There is some recognition and some reporting (on queer life), but the reporting is often poorly informed, isn’t frequent and does not actually build understanding of the community at all,” South African journalist Mark Heywood said.
It’s important to learn about the highs and lows communities face so society is accurately informed, Kester says. But, she says, it is equally important to show ways to help combat these polarized extremes, which can make those missing mundane stories of routine, love and triumph appear on more newsstands than stories of stereotypes, bloodshed and exploitation.
The tagline: Crying
The data: Globally, LGBTQ+ people are victims of stereotypes and stigma and have been for centuries. Media helps to further the narrative by producing content about queer folks that is inaccurate. Deadnaming or misgendering transgender or gender-nonconforming people, hyper-sexualizing queer people or dehumanizing them in front of an audience outside their community to where “they won’t see the human beings,” Kester said, are ways LGBTQ+ South Africans are represented that lead to them often distrusting the media and feeling divided from other parts of society.
“The media across the board fails to combat stereotypes and I think that includes The Daily Maverick, which I am part of,” Heywood said.
“What happens often is stories are written by people within the community rather than ensuring journalists outside the community are sensitized to the issues,” he continued.
HIV in South Africa is considered the biggest HIV epidemic in the world. In 2021, 7.5 million people were living with HIV in South Africa. Similar to other parts of the world, media makes it out to be a “gay virus.” Because of this, the stigma surrounding HIV deters people from being tested for HIV or other STIs, furthering the spread. Paul Botha, site manager of Engage Men’s Health, said he believes those who haven’t come out yet are the most vulnerable to the virus, as they are less likely to seek treatment.
If a gay man or a transgender woman takes off work for a doctor’s appointment, oftentimes, it is assumed by their coworkers they have HIV. There are also stereotypes surrounding HIV-positive individuals: “gay, Black, unemployed men over 35,” Botha said.
South African queer individuals and gender-nonconforming straight individuals are also less likely to be employed than gender-conforming straight individuals, and gender-nonconforming queer folks were the least likely to be employed, according to data from a 2021 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The same study shows the average monthly earnings for queer men and gender-nonconforming straight men were approximately 30% lower than that of gender-conforming straight men.
Therefore, many queer people rely on jobs doing sex work to make a livable wage, and since sex work is currently criminalized in South Africa, biases and stereotypes about sex workers run rampant.
How to combat this:
GLAAD has a media reference guide created to educate and guide journalists to tell LGBTQ+ stories holistically and accurately. Taking time to verify a person’s name, pronouns and how they identify is a common courtesy when talking to someone, so the same sensitivity and integrity should go into media coverage talking about someone. It’s also important to notice stereotypes when consuming media and not take them as truth, as even the smallest stereotypes add up and inaccurately represent a community. Check in on the queer people around you when you see or hear something offensive. If you see queer people inaccurately represented by media, contact glaad.org.
The tagline: Dying
The data: Maybe the phrase “27 club” rings a bell? This morbid so-called club is full of musicians, artists and actors who died at 27 years old. With Black trans women, the “35 club” is the club to avoid. Among the community, a common belief is the life expectancy of a trans Black woman is 35 as many don’t make it past that marker. Zsa-Zsa Fisher is aware that, despite everything she’s dealt with in her life, she is lucky.
“I’m 42 years old and very proud of it, because the lifespan of a transgender woman in South Africa is (thought to be) 35, so to live beyond that as a transgender woman is quite important and significant,” Fisher said.
One of Fisher’s friends, also a transgender woman, was tied to her bed frame and set on fire. In media stories, she was inaccurately referred to as a gay man, and outlets failed to call the act of violence what it was: a hate crime.
Additionally, when lesbians are murdered in South Africa, the media and government often call the murders “gender-based violence” rather than hate crimes.
Section 9 of the South African Constitution — which is under the heading “Equality” and is meant to guarantee equality before the law and freedom from discrimination — is rarely enforced. When hate-based crimes occur against queer people, the government often treats the incidents as coincidental.
While there is the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, the victims bear the burden of trying to prove a crime was based in hate not only to the media, but also the government.
“We have to, as an organization, explain that if someone is going to murder a lesbian and brutally insert things into their body parts, that is hate in itself,” said Gugu Mandla, documentations officer at Iranti, a Johannesburg-based media advocacy organization that specializes in helping lesbian, trans, intersex and gender-nonconforming (LTIGNC) individuals use media as a platform to mobilize and shift dialogue.
“(We are) going to government officials and the police and saying we are seeing this as a hate crime because of how this murder occurred, and these are the things that we’re constantly having to engage with officials about,” Mandla said.
How to combat this: Iranti works with government officials to train them how to work on queer issues and informs them how to better support queer South Africans. But, Iranti workers say they cannot do it alone.
As GLAAD mentions in its media reference guide, speak out against media outlets who allow hate speech to be spread as “free speech.” Write to government officials about hate crimes and acts of violence. Participate in rallies or marches. Report small incidents before they become large. Check up on queer friends.
“I would like to see the reporting improved in the same way I’d like to see reporting improved on all social justice issues: less time spent on politicians and the business of government, which is often to the detriment of reportage on people who live in South Africa and their lives and issues,” Heywood said.
“People are frequently the initiators of change in policy and society, and politicians are only at the end of that spectrum,” he continued.
The tagline: Marching
The data: In the U.S., rainbows are plastered on flags, pins, stickers, apparel, foods, beverages and even toiletry items during Pride Month. The same is true in South Africa, as media tends to hype up queer representation in October. That’s when the first Pride march was held in Africa in 1990, and the month South Africans celebrate Pride.
Joburg Pride, the first Pride event, was described as “simultaneously angry and carnivalesque,” as the focus was not only on the rainbow memorabilia, but also – or more clearly – the push for change. People marched to “demand our rights as full, proud, productive participants in a fully equal society,” said Edwin Cameron in his book, “Pride: Protest and Celebration.”
Yet, many queer South Africans find the overwhelming media push to promote Pride in October a bit disheartening, as the representation doesn’t last throughout the year. This temporary depiction of Pride can be considered “slacktivism,” which is when actions are taken to endorse or promote a cause or movement, but the actions are minimal.
Queer visibility in global media has grown tenfold in recent years. In GLAAD’s 2021-2022 Where We Are on TV Report, they reported 11.9% of characters (92 of 775 series regular characters) on scripted broadcast primetime programming were LGBTQ+. This data marked a new record-high percentage of LGBTQ+ series regulars on broadcast, with an additional 49 recurring LGBTQ+ characters. Still, having queer characters and portraying them accurately are two different things.
“I think there isn’t a proper recognition of the diversity of the community or the challenges, so to me it still feels a little bit like a tick box exercise because in the times we live in, you have to be representative and sensitive, but you don’t actually do the job properly,” Heywood said about queer media representation and stories.
“Is (Pride Month) a time to celebrate by selling and buying things? Or is it a time for protests?” asked Steven Thrasher, Daniel H. Renberg Chair of Social Justice at Northwestern University.
While Pride is a time to show representation of queer love and different identities, it’s also a time to advocate for better representation across the board, Thrasher says.
How to combat this: Hassina Obaidy, a contributor to the Emtrain workplace resource center based in California, suggests if corporations have one month when they market things for Pride Month, the rest of the months of the year should be focused on accountability. Obaidy proposes consumers call on companies and media outlets who profit off the LGBTQ+ community to use their profits as a means of support.
“Empower trans employees. Divest from the economies of countries with explicit LGBTQ discriminatory policies. Make your products available to communities of people who need it the most,” Obaidy said.
“One month of good behavior does not make up for years of taking on the role of not-so-innocent bystander to the systemic oppression and professional discrimination the LGBTQ community has experienced,” she added.
Thrasher doesn’t doubt that commercializing things like Pride is helpful in highlighting groups and showing others they exist, but he says it can’t stop there. A solution to making sure causes have representation year-round, Thrasher says, is to respond to news as it’s happening, rather than waiting to show representation or be an ally in a particular month.
Many do commend the increase and improvement in representation of South African queer individuals in recent years but say there’s still a long way to go before mundane stories like Kester’s are just as important to media as the sensationalized, insensitive topics.
“One of the bad things about traumas is that it doesn’t let you live as a whole person. People should be able to have the experiences of their full lives, which include difficult things, but also includes laughter, joy, sex, dancing and all these other things. So it’s really important to portray people in their totality,” Thrasher said.
Jordyn Bradley is a social justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @byjordynb.