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Gender violence requires broader lens

in SOUTH AFRICA, 06/08/2012

Victoria John's report on the murder of Thapelo Makhutle made for shocking reading, writes Melanie Judge.

The Mail & Guardian's spread gave a gruesome account of his killing and brought to mind that old media adage: "If it bleeds, it leads."

John's report starts by stating that "most people in the Kuruman area believe it is ungodly and unAfrican to be gay".

Reading the article, it is clear that this statement, posing as fact, quotes one person contemplating views "around the streets of Kuruman". Journalistic ethics requires that such a sweeping assertion be properly substantiated. If not, it risks reproducing the normalisation of the very homophobic discourses it reports. The media has a particular responsibility to resist the naturalisation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) "victim" ­everyone loves to hate.

Amid murder, contestations of "Africanness", sexuality and gender are very much alive.

Resistance to the Traditional Courts Bill and to the homophobia of traditional leaders are cases in point. LGBTI people increasingly claim political and social space and women challenge cultural systems that undermine their rights. This resistance is partly why violence based on sexuality and gender occurs.

John details the violent minutiae of Makhutle's murder. In such reports, it seems all too easy to represent the violated black (because they mostly are) and blue bodies of such people, especially females.

Widening the lens so that the horror is contextualised works against homophobic violence being normalised and its causes being obscured.

Unlike the bodies they claim, systems of violence (heteronormativity, sexism, racism, impoverishment) are seldom laid bare.

Heteronormativity privileges heterosexuality at the expense of those who do not conform and violence is its policing force. Lesbians and gay men challenge what it is to be masculine or feminine and that only opposite sexes attract.

Transgender and intersex people disrupt the notion of a fixed relationship between biological sex and gender. The mere ­existence of queers subverts gender binaries and myths of "naturalness".

Peddling prejudice

Movements for social change are grounded in the pain, rage and resistance of the injured. In the face of murder, LGBTI people are increasingly asserting that our bodies matter and have value to be mourned. These political acts have the potential to generate new and more equitable forms of power and political agency.

Violence tells us something about who we are, both as the injured and the privileged. It calls us to ask: How are gender hierarchies sustained through homophobic violence?

How do sexism, racism and class inequalities enable violence? Whose political and social interests are served by peddling prejudice? What happens when we do not hold to account the leaders who actively promote hatred in the name of culture?

We must consider these contextual issues lest we remain forever transfixed by the horror of bleeding ­bodies while participating in the very exercise of power that makes such violence possible.

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