In September this year South Africa supported a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The resolution aimed to protect against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination.
Four years since 2010 have passed and it has finally come the time for the trial related to the murder of Anni Dewani to begin. The spectacle of reporting on this trial has already revealed two things I think are important to reflect on in light of the spirit of this resolution.
- South African media still considers heterosexuality as ‘the norm’, to the extent to which it is invisible
In his statement, Shrien Dewani pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, and also confessed to being bisexual. A number of pieces have been written about this coverage already so I won’t say much other than to state the obvious – it was bad journalism.
The media reporting on the trial lazily described this revelation as a ‘possible motive for murder’ and focussed entirely on this aspect for the first day of the media coverage around the trial. Even international media like the Guardian suggested that “his sexuality is likely to be presented by prosecutors as a motive for wanting his wife dead.”
Let’s stop for a second and go back to a very recent high-profile murder trial.
Oscar Pistorius, a heterosexual man, guns down his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through a bathroom door. Accident or not, it was Pistorius who pulled the trigger. Despite the fact that South Africa is a country where there are extremely high levels of violence against women perpetrated by an intimate (male) partner, and the fact that in many cases where a woman is murdered she is murdered by an intimate (male) partner, Pistorius’ heterosexuality never came into it. It seems strange no – in a country where heterosexual masculinity frequently implies violence and dominance over women? If Pistorius’ sexuality wasn’t important, why is Dewani’s?
- Media reporting and social reaction like this contributes to further stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity, and is perhaps why Dewani hid his sexuality in the first place
The media reporting thus far reinforces what gender theorists like to call ‘heteronormativity’. In essence this is the belief that people are divided into separate and complementary genders (man and woman) and that these are generally linked to biology (male and female) heterosexual desire (male man loves female woman).
The very fact that his bisexuality could ever have been considered as a motive for murder suggests that in the minds of the media (and possibly its readers) heterosexuality is the only ‘normal’ sexuality and that anything else leaves someone, well, a bit weird. And if they’re a bit sexually weird, it’s possible that they could be a murderer.
In case you didn’t get me here, those ideas are a) WRONG and b) DANGEROUS.
They’re wrong because they ignore the full spectrum of sexuality. They’re wrong because they reinforce homophobia by perpetrating the idea that there is a link between homosexuality, bisexuality and violence. There is no evidence for this latter idea.
In a country like South Africa where violence against members of the LGBTI community is prevalent, where hate speech and hate crimes force people out of their schools, homes and communities, to in any way endorse perceptions that bisexuality is ‘abnormal’ or even remarkable is dangerous. Particularly, the idea that homosexuality and bisexuality are linked to violence could result in retaliatory violence, the framing of violence against LGBTI people as ‘corrective’, and the continued stigmatisation of people who are not heterosexual.
In essence, these ideas create a world where it is not safe to say that you are bisexual, homosexual or anything other than heterosexual. They reinforce the world that made Dewani afraid to admit his sexuality in the first place. They create the cultural currency that allows the exclusion of LGBTI people, and go against the commitments made by South Africa in the SOGI resolution.
For these reasons alone, media headlines like the ones we’ve seen so far should be stopped, and instead, some less sensational, real analysis should be welcomed.
Jen Thorpe is the editor of feministssa.com. She’s a feminist writer and researcher who is passionate about getting the word out about violence against women, and about research around women’s negotiation of sexuality. In 2010 she started the My First Time women’s writing project which is still open for stories from women on their significant first time experiences, and was published as book in 2012.