Editor’s note: I met Sharon Cox Ludwig through Rev. Pat Bumgardner, the pastor of MCC New York (Metropolitan Community Church). She is among the activists in the many countries and places where the lives of LGBTI people would be unrecognizable in their challenges to most of us living in the U.S. She is an amazing woman. – Mark/Editor
Sharon Cox Ludwig is the MCC Development Worker for Africa and has been a member of the Council of Good Hope MCC, Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently the Interim Director and the manager of the Health and Support Programme at Triangle Project, the oldest LGBTI human rights organization in Africa.
Sharon holds a post graduate degree with majors in Criminology and Psychology. Sharon was also part of the case for marriage equality in South Africa, which was realized in 2006.
MM: Are you still MCC’s Development Worker for Africa, and what does that involve?
SCL: I am the African Development worker in Africa. MCC has several congregations in Africa and also many who make contact with the denomination from outside of South Africa. It is a sad reality that when one is doing this work in Africa where in many parts homosexuality is criminalized, one has to be careful about the intentions of people.
There has been a continuation in the rise of conservatism in this country and homoprejudice is fuelled in part by religion. The last thing that we need to be doing is placing people in vulnerable positions if people are claiming one thing but actually have a far more devious agenda.
It can be frustrating at times to have ongoing conversations but one never wants to miss an opportunity to perhaps start a conversation with a clergy member who really is intent on having a safe space for LGBTI’s. Then there is of course, those individual LGBTI’s, people who come across the denomination either online or through other ways (the film, A Prayer for Bobby, where MCC was featured). That has been a way that several individuals have made contact. For the most part, they are in places where there may never be an inclusive and affirming church, but we are able to connect and be of some support even if virtually. The blessing of technology.
MM: Can you tell us about how you get involved with Good Hope MCC and what it means to have that congregation there for LGBTI South Africans?
SCL: I heard about the church when I moved from Kwa Zulu Natal to the Western Cape. I started attending and it wasn’t long before I found a spiritual home at the church and got involved in the life and ministry of the church.
It is important to have inclusive and affirming spaces for LGBTI people. We are so much more than our orientation or gender identity. For many who were raised in churches and for whom faith is important, it is great to have a place of worship where you can be all of who you are, without the fear of prejudice and discrimination if you choose to attend a church.
MM: You’re the manager of the Health and Support Programme at Triangle Project, the oldest and largest LGBTI human rights organization in Africa. Could you tell us about the Project and its history?
SCL: Triangle Project is a human rights non-profit organisation, advocating for the rights and the wellbeing of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community by working towards a society free of discrimination, prejudice, victimisation and heterosexist violence and the oppression of gender and sexual minorities.
Triangle Project originated from an organisation called GASA 6010, established in 1981. This organisation was setup up to provide counselling and medical services in response and related to HIV and AIDS. In 1982 a helpline was also established. GASA 6010 was one of the first organisations in South Africa to respond to the HIV and AIDS crisis, and assisted with prevention initiatives.
As part of various Coalitions at the turn of democracy, the organisation remained active in both campaigns to address the HIV/AIDS challenges as well as the Constitutional and legislative changes to recognise LGBTI people’s rights.
Gaps between the theoretical frameworks of democratic South Africa and social attitudes however remain. Consequently social hostility and prejudice towards LGBTI people are still a reality. These attitudes have major implications for addressing the needs of LGBTI people. It is evident that heteropatriarchal values are entrenched in a South African nation at variance with itself in the post-apartheid era.
Triangle Project expanded its work. Activism is important and not only focused on our urban areas but also peri-urban and rural areas. Triangle fulfills an important function in the struggle for and defense of human rights in South Africa in that its main target groups, lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) are marginalised and discriminated against within society, despite the constitutional commitment of equality and the legislative gains made. In order to realise the vision of a truly democratic South Africa, change needs to take place and that can only happen in a just society where all human beings are able to develop to their full potential, without discrimination or fear.
MM: You’re also involved in helping women. What does that entail, and how have you been involved in women’s issues and women’s needs?
SCL: With high rates of HIV/AIDS, women really do bear the burden of care. Women’s bodies are also so often the sites of violence. We still live in a very patriarchal society. We still see much of the attention (not to mention funding) given to men/MSM [men who have sex with men].
With the levels of gender based violence as high as they are and with little attention paid to HIV and lesbians, bisexual women and women who have sex with women, it is an issue that is often overlooked and not much attention is paid to it.
Another part of the work we do at Triangle is around sexual and reproductive health among lesbian and bisexual women. Many lesbians never disclose their HIV status and as a result, do not seek support or medical care early.
For me in my role at Triangle and in ministry , I have worked closely with women who have been survivors of violence, mothers who have either lost children to violence or mothers whose children have survived but struggle to live a life they once knew.
Something that I have also been passionate about is the fact that in a society that has witnessed and experienced so much violence, emotional health cannot be overlooked. Therapy (not exclusively Western) is something that has been a luxury, reserved for those with resources. People – those who have experienced the worst of what human beings inflict on one another through prejudice and hate – are the very people who generally have not had access to this kind of support.
MM: South Africa famously has marriage equality in its constitution. What are some of the realities for LGBTI people in South Africa? Does having a guarantee of marriage equality change the day to day lives of people?
SCL: The reality is that traditional/cultural and religious conservatism often combine to deny LGBTI people (and in particular those who have been historically excluded because of race and ethnicity) their basic human and citizenship rights. These manifest in the attitudes of people. So, if you are LGBT or I and seeking health care in the public system, you may be met with some very prejudiced comments, for example “You deserved this”… “You had this coming to you”… “This is God’s punishment.” If you are a lesbian for example who is HIV positive and are met with this kind of treatment in a health facility, you may never go back and seek further treatment. The same can be said of bullying in schools or reporting a crime to a police station etc.
Then of course, it is well known that there are high rates of gender based violence against women in this country and add to that, the fact that lesbians are targeted because of their sexual orientation. Many of our lesbian sisters have lost their lives just because of who they love and our Trans sisters have lost their lives because of who they are.
Does marriage equality make a difference in these lived realities? Nope, not a bit. Is it a good thing to have marriage equality? Sure it is – equality is what we strive for and the gains made for equality are hard earned gains, but we need equality it in all aspects of our lives. To the person who lives 10 minutes out of the cosmopolitan city centre, in the general direction of the airport for example, marriage may be a long way down the list of things that would be important. I can guarantee that issues such as food security, access to health care, personal safety and housing would be priority issues.
MM: What are a few if the things you would want people outside South Africa to know about the lives of LGBTI people there?
SCL: That paper rights and lived realities are two different things. South Africa is often perceived as a wonderful place to be if you are LGBTI because of a very progressive Constitution.
This may be the case if you are middle class, can afford health insurance which allows you access to private health care, you live in suburbia, have easy access to transport and can socialise where you wish, when you wish and do that safely. Well then, you can marry, be on each other’s medical insurance scheme, adopt children together and we have the legal framework in place which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of, amongst other things, one’s sexual orientation.
Not so rosy if you happen to be unemployed or underemployed, you live in a poorer area, you do not have the ability to travel freely or safely and you live in a community that is perhaps hostile towards LGBTI’s. You would also be a person then that would have to be utilizing the public health care system.
Schools can also be hostile environments for young people who do not conform to what society deems “normal”. Homophobic and Transphobic bullying is not uncommon and young people can struggle in the school system with this. It can make it really impossible if the school is not open to engaging with organisations such as Triangle Project to ensure that our schools are places of learning and growing for all young people.
MM: What are your hopes for the future as an activist in South Africa?
SCL: In order for there to be some headway in terms of people’s realities, we need changes in attitudes on the ground. As activists; people who daily work at the coalface with issues around people’s emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, with the young person in school, the older person who is positive and ill, the person who has been a victim of homoprejudice violence, with the lesbian who has been raped or the teen who has strung himself up to a tree – it is important that in all the work that we do, that we have a social movement of advocates and activists, that LGBTI people in this country will never become complacent and think that if something does not directly impact on their comfortable lives then it is not their problem. An injury to one should be an injury to all.
Each of us should be doing something to make a difference so that everyone can live a life that is free. Freedom from prejudice, hate, violence and discrimination, is my hope for the future – not just for some people – for all people.