LGBT migrants in South Africa: religion can be a blessing, and a curse

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11/19/21

The politicisation of religion in Africa is now well documented. It is a strategy used to maintain the idea that heterosexuality is the only natural and normal expression of human desire. What is less often spoken about is the positive role that religion plays in the lives of LGBT Africans, including refugees. Even less attention is given to religious communities that welcome and celebrate LGBT people. In my new book, Seeking Sanctuary: Stories of Sexuality, Faith and Migration, I explore both dynamics. The book records a multi-year oral history project with the LGBT Ministry at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Johannesburg. Since 2009, the ministry has opened its doors to LGBT people of all faiths and nationalities, and it remains popular with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. As well as providing spiritual nourishment, the ministry offers a safe space in which LGBT people can receive support, build community and advocate for their rights. In documenting the lives of the ministry’s members, I hoped to understand how their faith has evolved over time and how religion has shaped their experiences of displacement. I also spoke with church leaders about the role religious institutions can play in combating homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. South Africa has long hosted LGBT people fleeing persecution. Many are seeking protection from violence, prosecution and harsh criminal penalties. Others come from countries where homophobic and transphobic attitudes remain pervasive, even when there are no specific laws targeting sexual and gender minorities. Those who reach South Africa hope its progressive laws will shield them from the experiences left behind – beatings, extortion, familial abuse, forced marriage or simply having to hide their identities, desires and relationships. For many, this dream of freedom remains unfulfilled. Research shows that LGBT migrants, refugees and asylum seekers struggle to find housing and jobs, and are regularly subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. They also encounter discrimination from government officials, police officers, medical personnel and others tasked with providing care and support. As the stories in my book show, religion is a major reason why LGBT Africans leave their countries of origin. It also contributes to the discrimination they encounter in transit and in South Africa.

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