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Workers who are members of the LGBTQI+ community say that despite policies against discrimination in the workplace, they still experience homophobia in workplaces with no one to understand their struggles. While they are members of trade unions, they have not had the benefit of union support.

Homophobia is the irrational fear and prejudice towards homosexuality and is expressed in various ways such as derogatory slurs that puts the mental and physical well-being of people in the LGBTQI+ community at risk. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act prohibits unfair discrimination, hate speech and harassment.

“Homophobia is a human-made construct often fed by political, religious, legal, and pseudo medical justifications. Intolerance, bias, or prejudice is usually a more accurate description of antipathy toward LGBTQI+ people.”

Iranti, an LGBTQI+ advocacy group

A KZN-based retail worker who asked to remain anonymous in fear of losing their job shared with Elitsha how they are mocked because of their sexual orientation. “Customers and colleagues make fun of me, but I choose not to report it. I’m used to it now,” they said.

Nkosinathi Zwane, formerly a manager at a store, shared the impact the work culture has had on him. Workers would often start staff meetings with a prayer and he did not mind. However, it became a problem when one of his colleagues made a homophobic comment mid-prayer. “They would give me a task, and say, ‘oh but in your CV you said you are a male – not female’. I felt belittled. My work performance was affected as I lacked the zeal I used to have for work,” said Zwane.

In addition, the store enforced hetero-sexist policies that presume sexual relations are for people of the opposite sex and fail to recognise different gender expression. For example, dress codes at workplaces are a barrier for gender non-conforming people. Elitsha also spoke to Tebogo Makwati who challenged the dress code policy at the South African Police Service (SAPS) because they felt unaccommodated. “There were practices in the workplace used to suppress queer people, and labour laws were amplifying the silencing of queer voices in these spaces,” Makwati said.

Video insert on homophobia in the workplace. Produced by Nobathembu Ndzengu

Nina Benjamin, the gender programme coordinator at Labour Research Services, says to address discrimination, institutions need to be trained on how to deal with homophobic cases: “The gender structures within unions have done a lot of work in the past few years. However, that work needs to extend to the shop stewards and negotiators.”

The South African Catering, Commercial and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) KZN gender coordinator, Ntombi Ndlovu said the union has adopted progressive policies and programmes to eradicate homophobia and unfair discrimination in workplaces. All gender committees – local, regional, and national – are in the forefront to implement these programmes through awareness, training, and participating in activities for LGBT+ members. 

Benjamin advised that unions need to have constant conversations regarding homophobia. “Unions should be mindful of seeing homophobia as secondary discrimination and they should look at these issues as key to how to locate all struggles. That way, unions will be able to see the work that has been done and they should not lose the gains of that work,” Benjamin said.  

Having LGBT+ representation in workplaces is crucial to understanding the challenges faced by the community, and further affirms them to freely be who they want to be. “I do not think unions take issues of the LGBT+ communities seriously in the workplace,” Makwati said.

The National Union of Mineworkers Western Cape provincial educator, Lumka Tamboer said whenever a case of homophobia is reported, it needs to be handled sensitively: “The victim needs to be assured that no secondary victimisation will occur when they report a case of homophobia.”