Last edited: February 13, 2005

Gay Cops Carve Out a New Beat in South Africa

Homosexuality is no longer considered a crime

San Francisco Chronicle, May 25, 2003
901 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: 415-896-1107

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 bisexuals.

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 difficult.

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 Browning.

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 charges.

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 “cure” them.

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 practiced.”

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 2003/safrica/.

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