Gay Cops Carve Out a New Beat in South Africa
Homosexuality is no longer considered a crime
Francisco Chronicle, May 25, 2003
901 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103
By Sarah Duguid, Chronicle Foreign Service
JOHANNESBURG—When Sias Strydom
arrived at his wedding in Klerksdorp, the first thing he saw was a group of
giggling police officers hiding behind a wall. They were there to see whether
Strydom, who joined the police force a year before, was wearing a white dress.
To their disappointment, Strydom and his sweetheart both
got married in dark suits, crisp white shirts and silk ties.
Strydom and Brent Browning are South Africa’s first
gay, married police officers.
During the apartheid regime, homosexuality was considered
a serious crime. But in 1996, South Africa became the most progressive country
in the world, on paper at least, when a clause was written into the
constitution banning discrimination against gays, lesbians, transsexuals and
Two years later, the law against sodomy, used to
prosecute gays, was struck down by the court.
Gays in the country’s big cities have relished the
change, and Cape Town now sells itself as a “pink” destination. But
outside the major cities, South Africa is finding the transition more
Klerksdorp, southwest of Johannesburg, is no exception.
The city of 500,000 people, known for its high-security prison, seems like the
last place two young gay men could find an accepting home. But they are
determined to stay.
“We don’t want to move. My husband is from Klerksdorp,
and we like it here, “ says Browning.
They met their first day at the police academy, and
within a year, Browning proposed. The state still doesn’t recognize gay
marriages, so they drafted an iron-tight prenuptial contract to legalize their
relationship: It states that if either partner commits adultery, he must leave
the house immediately and continue paying his share of all household bills,
even though he would no longer live there.
“Everyone thinks a gay man is a slut, but I am more
committed to my marriage than half the population in the world,” says
Once they graduated from the police academy college, they
had “a hell of a battle” to persuade the service to post them to the same
town, Browning says. Without a marriage certificate, they couldn’t apply for
a joint posting, but after months of wrangling, they not only ended up at the
same station but also on the same beat.
Strydom and Browning are part of the new generation of
gay men in South Africa. They weren’t sexually active at the height of
apartheid and didn’t feel its cruelty firsthand. As the enforcing arm of
apartheid, the police frequently raided underground gay clubs and would burst
into the homes of couples suspected of being gay in an attempt to find them in
bed together—enough evidence to drag them down to the station and press
Within the police force, there was a rule of terror.
Psychological testing was used to filter out homosexuals, and officers
suspected of being gay were investigated and fired—a policy that led to a
number of suicides.
As late as 1993, the same year the ruling African
National Congress (ANC) announced its support of gay marriage, Police
Commissioner General Johan Van de Merwe publicly stated that there were no
gays in the South African police force. Four months later, he unwittingly
brought one of the force’s most active gay voices to prominence.
Van de Merwe named Inspector Dennis Adriao “policeman
of the year,” an honor that earned him a trip to Britain. After a visit to a
London club named Heaven, the young inspector realized he was gay. Two years
later, Adriao became the first officer to come out, and he established a
lesbian and gay network for police officers that now has 1,000 members.
But Adriao says “there is still a lot of intolerance”
against gays and lesbians in South Africa.
Within the black community, homosexuality is still
stigmatized, and many gays complain that the police ignore attacks or rapes
against gay men and women because they believe the rapes were intended to
Last month, an openly gay woman in a village in Eastern
Cape province was brutally attacked, gang-raped and stoned to death by seven
men because of her sexuality.
An HIV-positive lesbian in Soweto who has been the victim
of several rapes says: “The constitution is written, but it is not
Although gays have won equal rights for same-sex partners
under the state health and pension plans, gay rights groups have been careful
not to p ush for state-recognized gay marriage to avoid provoking religious
groups and the right-wing lobby.
And even the ANC, despite its professed support of gay
rights, has opposed virtually every precedent-setting legal case brought by
the gay lobby, even defending the constitutionality of the sodomy laws.
“The problem in South Africa is that, despite the
constitution, political leaders have done absolutely nothing to make that
right real,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International
Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco.
In the meantime, Strydom and Browning are fighting for
gay rights one day at a time.
Browning decided to be open about his sexuality only
after meeting Strydom—a decision that led all his childhood friends from
Klerksdorp to break off contact with him. At the station, there have been
sporadic confrontations. An infuriated policewoman once pulled off Strydom’s
engagement ring, and he has been bullied by at least one supervisor.
But the two gay officers are slowly winning the respect
of their comrades.
For the past five months, they have had the highest
arrest rate at their station, a success they attribute to their ability to
“read” one another.
“When we get a serious complaint, say for an armed
robbery, as we get out of the vehicle we know exactly what the other one is
doing,” says Strydom.
One senior officer said gay police officers often work
better than straight ones. Browning agrees: “Straight policemen just want to
hang around and look at women,” he says. “We work at work and play at
home. There’s no intimacy and soppy stuff when we’re in our uniforms.”
A new report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human
Rights Commission details harassment of sexual minorities in Botswana,
Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is available at hrw.org/reports/
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