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4Men - Opinions

Letters and opinions from concerned male South African citizens on current affairs and issues affecting us all

Realities Of Soft Discrimination

Realities Of Soft Discrimination

By Angelo C Louw

A year ago, I took the Drama Queen of the Year Award, at my organisation's end of year party. While these awards were meant to be light-hearted and we all received mall vouchers and other goodies as a prize, it bothered me that I was being recognised for my so-called office antics and not the quality of my work which I have devoted so much of my life to. It also made me wonder if, as in the case of many females in the workplace, my sexuality blinded people to what I actually brought to the table.

Ever since females were allowed to hang up their aprons and join the workforce, they have been chastised for being emotional in the workplace, forming cliques and letting family responsibilities interfere with their work. This was ironic considering stereotypes of the angry boss and boys clubs existed long before affirmative action. Common labels for females in the workplace (particularly in management) such as "b***h" and "dragon lady" not only dehumanise females by describing their work ethic as animalistic, they are also evidently gendered. Other examples of gender discrimination, probably more popular in the '80s, include the labelling of corporate females as lesbian. It is on this premise that I argue terms such as "drama queen" within a professional setting are derogatory as one's work ethic is undermined because of your sexual orientation or preference.

In my case, to put things into perspective, I single-handedly improved the quality and frequency of the publication I manage on the smallest budget we have ever had in the history of the magazine. My work on this project and numerous other side projects earned me a Young Leader Runner-Up Award at the 2014 Nelson Mandela Community Leadership Awards, an event recognising excellence in leadership in Gauteng – and attended by provincial premier David Makhura. None of my triumphs would have been possible had I not hounded down our finance department to pay suppliers (which almost feels like it has become part of my job function) and stood my ground regarding the parameters of my work. In my opinion, calling out someone unprofessionally does not step outside of the professional framework, so why is it that when I flex my professional muscle, am I met with insult? Because I have dared to live a life outside of the one prescribed as a person born male and succeeded, I am challenging the very core beliefs of a massive faction of society. In a desperate attempt to protect the status quo, this type of violence is used to nullify my success by reducing me to the failure this system positions me as.

Recently, during a domestic dispute between my parents, my stepfather asked my mother why she was quick to judge his son's drug addiction and not the fact that I was homosexual. She responded that the difference between us two was that my personal choices didn't impact her or anyone else negatively. While I was hurt by his insinuation that my sexual orientation was akin to drug addiction, I understood that in grasping at straws, he could not find anything else to fault me on. I wonder if perhaps this logic applies to the workplace discrimination I sometimes face. They may mean no harm by it, but for my colleagues to call out my sexual orientation during disputes makes me realise that we have not seen much of a shift in attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people since discrimination based on sexual orientation was banned by our constitutional court. This kind of soft discrimination rears its head with every joke cracked; every comparison made on the basis of sexuality and even compliments attributing one's successes to their sexuality.

You may ask why I am so affected by something that seems trivial considering the violence met by LGBTI people in our townships, but I believe that we shouldn't be negotiating tolerance of intolerance. Slurs about one's sexuality impacts their confidence and productivity. A 2014 study by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation found that more than half of their sample of LGBTI employees hid who they were at work; one in four reported hearing negative comments such as “That’s so gay” in the workplace; and one in five LGBTI workers reported looking for a new job specifically because their working environment wasn’t very accepting of LGBTI identities.

Gender-based discrimination is rife in the workplace, and not only impacts affected persons at an individual level, but has structural consequences too: the lack of access to opportunities, unemployment... Early last year, a study by Ernesto Reuben of Columbia Business School asked test participants to hire candidates for a math task where both genders performed equally. It found participants were twice as likely to hire "the man" for the simple reason that they were seen as being better at math than women. This is despite the global trend where females are doing better at school than males – maths included – according to the American Psychological Association. A review of the annual national assessment tests of 2012 in South Africa backs up these findings. Gender bias and stereotyping are not only unfounded, but damaging.

At a societal level, the impact of fear of discrimination is far more devastating as many LGBTI males' fear of judgement forces them to live heteronormative lives by day, while engaging in risky sexual behaviour with other men behind closed doors and in dark rooms of gay clubs. The South African National AIDS Council believes that as many as 37% of men who sleep with men (MSM) are HIV positive - while the Johannesburg eThekwini Men’s Study found that close to 50% of their sample of MSM tested positive. The average age of participants in the latter study was 22 years old – a faction often described as the backbone of our country’s economic future.

While being Drama Queen of the Year is all fun and games, it doesn't become funny when my future employment is stifled because my reference joking mentions this momentous achievement. Call me crazy – actually don't – but shouldn't my achievements be the measure of competence?

About the Author

Angelo C LouwAngelo C Louw is editor-in-chief of loveLife's UNCUT, South Africa’s largest circulation youth magazine. He is also spearheading a mainstreaming project on LGBTI sensitivity at the national youth leadership development organisation.

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