South Africa Strikes Down Harsh Laws on Gay Sex
New York Times,
October 10, 1998
229 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
By Donald G. McNeil, Jr.
JOHANNESBURG, South AfricaCiting a provision in the new
constitution, South Africas highest court struck down the countrys sodomy laws
In theory, gay rights have been protected here since the country passed its provisional
constitution in 1994. But many of older laws remained on the books. The suit decided by
the Constitutional Court Friday was brought by the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian
Equality and was not opposed by the African National Congress government.
"Obviously, were happy," said Mazibuko Jara, the coalitions
national manager. "We welcome the decision as confirming the values and principals of
South Africas constitutionthe worlds most liberalbans
"unfair" discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital
status, ethnic origin, color, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture,
language and birth, as well as sexual orientation.
The harsh laws that the court overturned classified sodomy as a Schedule 1 offense,
like murder or rape, punishable by life imprisonment.
A more esoteric law also struck down Friday, Section 20A of the Sexual Offenses Act,
which was written after a vice raid on a gay mens party in the 1960s, outlawed any
behavior "at a party"defined as a gathering of more than two menthat led to sexual gratification. Under that law, gay activists said, a man could be
jailed for giving another man a come-hither glance, if seen by a third man, who could be
the arresting officer.
Such laws were seldom enforced in recent years, and there have been Gay Pride marches
for a decade now. But two Cape Town prisoners who engaged in consensual sex were charged
with sodomy last year, and the threat of such prosecutions still existed, particularly in
prisons and the army under conservative commanders, activists said.
South Africa has become increasingly liberal since the days when army officers tried to
change homosexuals by giving gay recruits electric shocks while showing them pictures of
naked men. Military and police codes of conduct now ban anti-gay discrimination, and a few
government-owned corporations like the national electric company recognize same-sex
But most corporations and government departments do not, and other laws prevent, for
example, adoption by gay couples. A spokesman for the gay rights coalition said
Fridays broad ruling might be used to challenge those laws and policies.
The ruling was written by Judge Lori Ackerman with a concurring ruling by Judge Albie
Sachs, who wrote that it should be seen as "part of a growing acceptance of
difference in an increasingly open and pluralistic South Africa."
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