Taking on homophobia

18 May 2015 - 02:01 By Sanya Mansoor

Jennifer Ayebazibwe, a black lesbian, was amused but mainly fed up with questions from co-workers about whether she whipped out a fake penis on unsuspecting women, had real breasts or grew chest hair. So she took it upon herself to educate them. She set up weekly question-and-answer sessions with her colleagues. And with each week their questions became deeper and less ridiculous.Ayebazibwe wrote a short story on her experience for a workshop by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) and the Labour Research Service (LRS) last year.And on Friday, she read from it at an event on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg.Two publications by GALA and the LRS were launched at the gathering: a guide for workers, employers, HR managers, trade unions and NGOs on how to handle homophobia in the workplace, and a discussion paper on the treatment of lesbian, bisexual and gender non-conforming women in the South African labour market.Although Shehnilla Mohamed, programme coordinator for the Africa and International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, found Ayebazibwe's personal story compelling, she warned that there was no obligation on lesbians, gays and bisexuals to explain themselves to colleagues.The workplace ought to be "a dignified space in which you are not forced to discuss sexuality to create acceptance," she said.In the guidebook, researchers wrote that helping colleagues understand sexual and gender diversity could help limit gossip, lies or other discriminatory behaviour.Challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff in the workplace include being refused jobs, unfair dismissals , threats of violence and a lack of health and related benefits specifically designed for same-sex partners.GALA and the LRS plan to distribute the guidebook through major trade unions like the Congress of SA Trade Unions federation (Cosatu) through their gender coordinators - members in charge of LGBTI rights.Nosipho Twala, an LRS researcher who worked on the project, noted most gender coordinators weren't equipped with sufficient knowledge. Some were homophobic. Several felt challenged but willing to engage."Our mission is to make a trade union a home for all workers," said Nina Benjamin, another LRS researcher and contributor to the guidebook.The guide calls on trade unions to ensure workplace gender coordinators undergo training, and ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers are represented in its leadership structures.Benjamin said the decision to disclose one's sexual orientation in the workplace could have both negative and positive effects.There were a few areas of disagreement within the LGBTI community.Some wanted separate toilets while others felt it would make them uncomfortable. Benjamin noted when it came to maternity leave some women felt in a same-sex relationship, one partner should have paternity leave while others viewed both partners as mothers. Some were shocked by the short length of paternity leave: three days.Manika Matisi, a 27-year-old lesbian and activist with Wisatshi, remarked that it was high time people used their minds, rather than manuals. She said the research tabled did not look into what she found to be more pressing issues: discrimination in schools, churches and health centres.GALA and the LRS recommends in the handbook that employers communicate their company' s anti-discrimination policies clearly, provide training for staff on inclusive practices and take swift and firm action against discrimination should it occur.The research advises victims of LGBT discrimination in at the workplace to record as much information as possible, first follow the company anti-discrimination policy should it exist and only if that fails, take up their case with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA)...

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