Press Statement: CSA&G and SHR, University of Pretoria, Recognise, Support and Commemorate International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) 2020

The Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G), recognise, support, and commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). This annual event, observed on May 17, is marked internationally for the recognition of LGBTIQ+ rights. In particular, it is used to raise awareness and educate the public on issues of violence, discrimination, repression, and also to call attention to the health challenges that detract from the progress and wellbeing of the LGBTIQ+ community all over the world.

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IDAHOBIT also provides the space and opportunity for dialogue and education for the community without succumbing to the gaps and divisions often created by religious, cultural, racial, and class differences. Nevertheless, it is also understood that, within the LGBTIQ+ community itself, there are often divisions between different identifying sub-communities, the kinds of challenges they confront, and the needs most pertinent to them, which inevitably create further differentiation between facets of identity.

The theme for IDAHOBIT 2020 is ‘Breaking the silence’. Across Africa, there is still an active criminalisation and discrimination agenda by state and non-state actors that continues to silence and repress LGBTIQ+ persons, and often resulting in violence, extortion, and displacement. Even in non-criminalised contexts like South Africa, there is still a real and constant social pressure on many LGBTIQ+ persons to conform to heteronormative and cis-gendered standards in order to fit into their family, learning environments, workplaces, and other social structures. LGBTIQ+ persons in Africa face unique challenges through the impact of colonial, military, and apartheid legacies that policed, silenced and attempted to erase queer LGBTIQ+ minorities in their societies.

By facilitating discussion amongst community members and allies, we can contribute to the promotion of the rights and welfare of LGBTIQ+ persons in Africa.

As part of IDAHOBIT 2020, the Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender organised and co-hosted a webinar event to commemorate the day. The webinar contributed to the discussion of this year’s theme with a focus on the unique challenges faced by LBQ women, transgender people, and gender-nonconforming persons in Africa. It featured panellists Rudo Chigudu, Lara Oriye, and Sylvester Kazibwe who are doctoral and master’s candidates at the Centre for Human Rights. Amongst other issues, panelists considered the ‘absence’ of certain conversations in the queer community and the impact of these. In this vein, themes of intimate partner violence in the community and internalised homophobia were explored. The panelists also recognised that activism is constrained by lockdowns currently in place in response to COVID-19 as human rights defenders cannot travel to defend those accused and arrested due to lockdown restrictions, access to health services and psychosocial support services has been disrupted, and mental health challenges are exacerbated for LGBTIQ+ people during this time. The audience also had the opportunity to contribute comments and ask questions.

About CSA&G

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) was established in 1999 as the Centre for the Study of AIDS (CSA) initially as a standalone centre to help guide and shape the University of Pretoria’s (UP) HIV response, its engagement with communities from which staff and students are drawn and implement both service and research programmes. Hence, the CSA&G has always been able to, and continues to situate its work in both theory and practice. Since that time, the CSA&G has found an intellectual home within UP’s Faculty of Humanities but works across all nine UP faculties, support services and its Executive. The CSA&G uses an intersectional approach to sexualities, HIV and gender, promoting human rights and social justice.

About the Centre for Human Rights

The Centre for Human Rights is an academic department of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. It doubles as a non-governmental organisation (NGO). As such, the Centre functions as a teaching and research department while also running project activities as an NGO, aimed at training, advocacy, and capacity building.  This duality makes the Centre well-placed to deal with topics that may be perceived as contentious or politically charged, such as issues around sexual orientation, gender identity, expression and sex characteristics. The Centre’s reach is within South Africa and beyond, particularly on the African continent. The Centre specialises in human rights law and human rights issues on the African continent while linking these to global human rights knowledge streams and discourses from other regions of the world.

For more information, please contact: 

Pierre Brouard
Deputy Director
Centre for Sexualitiues, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G)
University of Pretoria 

Ayodele Sogunro
Manager: SOGIESC Unit
Centre for Human Rights
University of Pretoria

“Stay in the house and shag” and other bits of useless Covid-19 advice

Text by Pierre Brouard

Just “stay in the house and shag” said UK comedian Guz Khan when asked how he was coping with Covid-19.

That’s all very well I thought when I read the interview on the Guardian online, but what if you don’t really have a house that’s conducive to sex at any time of the day; or you live alone (I guess masturbation counts as being sexual, I will concede, but then a friend I was chatting to said he was “seeing how long I can go without masturbating” – but why? I thought); or your partner is abusing you; or you are so exhausted from 24 hour parenting and schooling sex is the last thing on your mind; or you have to go to work because you work in an essential service.

I also wonder if sex in an epidemic is the same as sex when life is “normal”? Beyond the advice columns about whether sex can be as safe as it was BC (before Covid) – in sum the experts say it’s ok to do what you want if you are Covid free, you should avoid each other completely if one of you has it, and you could switch to technology if you live alone or apart from your partner (video sex, sexting and the dreaded Zoom of course) – what do epidemics of fear do to our sex drives?

A Google search found this fascinating chapter from War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa by Joshua S. Goldstein. These are my take home messages, with a Covid twist.

We can become obsessed by sex

When we think we might die, we can become obsessed with sex as there is a sense of urgency about having one last intimate experience of life, or possibly the sex is a distraction from our deepest fear, death.

“Soldiers show an ‘almost universal preoccupation with sex’ – an ‘obsession with sex in a community of men…deprived of usual social and emotional outlets.’ A British officer in World War I concluded that ‘[m]ost soldiers were ready to have sexual intercourse with almost any woman whenever they could.’”[1]

Here in Gauteng a man was arrested in a road block for trying to go and visit his girlfriend, not visit his dying granny as he initially claimed. Perhaps he was just going to have tea with her, who knows?

These obsessions don’t occur in a vacuum

US and British military culture in World War II promoted this preoccupation with sex. As Goldstein notes, over 5 million copies of Life magazine’s 1941 photo of Rita Hayworth (captioned the “Goddess of Love”) were sent out to US soldiers. They were published not only in men’s magazines but in service publications like Stars and Stripes (or for Britain, Reveille).

Obviously this is a heteronormative take on war-time sexuality but it speaks to the idea that sex can become a preoccupation when we are deprived of it, and that military systems found a way to channel this: it was in their interest to entertain the preoccupation, given the horrors of war.

In South Africa, the idea that sex might be a need in a time of Covid would be regarded as frivolous by some and the regulations around staying at home, on the surface a key part of the “flatten the curve” strategy, dovetail very neatly with our generally conservative morality. But like HIV, Covid has been a revealer of our sexuality: sexologist Dr Eve on a Radio 702 show shared how many infidelities were being exposed through this lockdown!

Social norms can become disrupted

Another consequence of war is the disruption of social norms, especially if soldiers operate far from home, with new sexual opportunities and motives. “The disruption of normal sexual patterns was noted empirically by a New Orleans ‘madam’ whose business increased when America entered World War I: ‘I’ve noticed it before, the way the idea of war and dying makes a man raunchy. It wasn’t really pleasure at times, but a kind of nervous breakdown that could only be treated with a girl and a set to.’”[2]

Men saw sex workers, with and without military blessing, and sometimes formed relationships with local women (whose own relationships may also have been disrupted). “A US soldier in France in World War II wrote to his father that he planned to ‘get my fun where I can get it while I’m still alive. And to hell with tomorrow – it may never come.’ And apparently US airmen in England “who beat the odds by surviving could have sex after a mission, consistent with the testosterone boost produced by a ‘win’”.[3] Who were they having sex with, at such short notice? I wonder.

We could debate whether seeing a sex worker is a disruption of a social norm, but the words of that brothel owner are rather poignant – the men were having a “a kind of nervous breakdown”. I would venture that this is what a protracted lockdown can produce: will this change the way we have sex during and after “the time of the virus”?

Being at the front or the back mattered

In wartime the areas of greatest violence – the front lines – had far less sexual activity than the more peaceful areas behind the lines. “The ordinary soldier found that ‘[i]n the trenches there was no place for sexual life, at least not for a normal one…. According to Hirschfeld, soldiers in the trenches had few outlets for sexual energy and suffered ‘sex hunger’ on a massive scale – an ‘oppressive sex starvation.’ Sex hunger was compounded in World War I by the close quarters of men at the front, which often made even masturbation impractical. In World War II, by contrast, one soldier was more often alone in a foxhole, although a great stigma still attached to masturbation.”[4]

Behind the lines, by contrast, sex flourished in World War II. “By one calculation, the average US soldier who served in Europe from D-Day through the end of the war had sex with 25 women. The peak was reached after the surrender of Germany in 1945. Condoms had to be rationed at four per man per month and medical officers considered this ‘entirely inadequate.’”[5]

This is a fascinating observation: the imminence of death and sex urgency seems implied in the words of the “madam” above, and in the letter of the US soldier to his father, but perhaps it is the anticipation of death rather than the proximity of it which is more provocative? I think here of the frontline medical staff dealing with Covid – I would imagine they are too exhausted and afraid to think of sex, whereas the rest of us in a panicked lockdown might be more inclined to sexual abandon or risk (or not, as I suggest below).

“Normality” seems broken

“Hirschfeld claims that bestiality provided another substitute outlet created by the sexual starvation of the war”, said Goldstein [6]and “a military physician posted with a division of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Italian front reportedly thought that at least 10 percent of the men had sex with animals (usually their horses).”

And, not surprisingly, psychological problems after the war often included sexual dysfunction, such as inability to maintain an erection, well after returning to civilian life.

Depression, anxiety, job insecurity, all of these are likely in our current climate, and they are the enemy of a relaxed and comfortable sexual life. What we are going through as a country is not normal by any stretch of the imagination.

“Just stay in the house and shag” seems suddenly so bourgeois, so lacking in insight. We are living in the middle of a massive social experiment. Like my friend who has quit masturbating for a while, it’s one which may not have a happy ending.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.