Photography by:
  • Richard Ballard, Tracy Mutugi and Rholihlahla Dilata

Queering Social Survey Research

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In the past four decades, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) individuals across Africa did not have equality in law, and they experienced a great deal of institutionalised violence and interpersonal discrimination. Although 42 African countries had criminalised LGBTIQ+ identities before 1990, recent data from International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA World) shows that since 1990, ten countries have changed laws to allow same-sex, non-binary, and gender-diverse individuals to express themselves publicly. For many African countries, anti-LGBTIQ+ laws date back to the colonial period, however, the impact today is rife as LGBTIQ+ individuals continue to face stigma, discrimination, and widespread threats and violence as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

South Africa became the first country to constitutionally legalise LGBTIQ+ rights in Africa, and with the new liberal constitution, this resulted in many gains for LGBTIQ+ individuals, including recognition of same-sex marriage, the right to change one’s gender marker in identity documents, better protection and security from different forms of violence, and the right to contest discrimination they encounter. However, the legislative commitments exist amidst a legacy of pervasively conservative social attitudes towards homosexuality and gender diversity in the country. In addition, the everyday realities of LGBTIQ+ individuals continue to be very much affected by popular homophobic discourses of heteronormativity as well as transphobia and cisnormativity. These hegemonic discourses inform widely shared norms of masculinity and femininity, negative attitudes towards homosexuality, and sometimes hostile reactions, which are often pervasive towards homosexual and gender-diverse bodies.

After decades (indeed centuries) of legal and social discrimination against LGBTIQ+ individuals in South Africa, recent evidence from the GCRO’s Quality of Life Survey (2020/21) shows that attitudes toward LGBTIQ+ individuals are softening over time, with a decreasing proportion of respondents who indicate that violence towards LGBTIQ+ individuals is acceptable. While society is slowly becoming more accepting of LGBTIQ+ individuals in South Africa and identities-as-spectrum are increasingly recognised in the public discourse, most social survey research continues to operate in a binary paradigm.

Although social survey research has the potential to increase the acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTIQ+ population in society, the way research is designed and implemented often makes their lived experiences invisible. Quantitative research instruments have been structured to ignore the existence of any gender identification other than male/female or man/woman and sexual orientation is rarely if ever measured. Consequently, alternative gender identities and sexual orientations are demographic variables that continue to receive little attention in large-scale social surveys and official statistics. The 2022 Statistics South Africa census continues this practice, which means that LGBTIQ+ individuals will remain a hidden population when it comes to official policy and planning in South Africa.

Recently, researchers globally and in South Africa have turned their attention towards improving and understanding the measurements of sex, gender and sexuality in social survey research. There is a growing recognition that adequate measurement is necessary to ensure that no one is left out when policies are made and resources are allocated based on demographic data. Given the history, and in many contexts also present reality, of discrimination, however, the benefits of increased visibility may also bring with them forms of vulnerability that require particular care in the design and implementation of research. Furthermore, contestation and local variation in defining sexual orientation and gender identities mean that there is no simple alternative to conventional binary sex or gender measures.

This project aims to establish the importance of nuancing the measurement of sex, gender and/or sexuality in social survey research conducted in South Africa. The objectives includes:

  • Determining the scope for restructuring research design and research instruments to be able to observe the presence of LGBTIQ+ individuals within a population.
  • Understanding the limitations of a dichotomous ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ variable for policy and planning purposes.
  • Providing possible methods for collecting social data that includes sex, gender and sexuality variables in South Africa.

Seminar series

In collaboration with the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender (CSA&G) and Social Impact Insights Africa (SIIA), the Gauteng City-Region Observatory is launching a four-part online seminar series, running biweekly from 6 October to 17 November 2022, to establish the importance of nuancing the measurement of sex, gender and/or sexuality in social survey research conducted in South Africa.

The seminar series brings together researchers from various disciplines, official statistics units, government, civil society, activists and LGBTIQ+ organisations to unpack the value and challenges of using queer lenses in social survey development. With comparative inputs from renowned speakers from South Africa and other countries on the African continent, the seminar series will reflect on survey design in a range of contexts including the policy and advocacy intent of each study; national and institutional social surveying capacity; and varying legal conditions for different expressions of sex, gender and sexuality.

The themes and dates for all sessions are as follows:

  1. Mind the Data Gap: LGBTIQ+ Inclusion in Social Surveys and the Impact on Policy - 06 October 2022, 11:00 - 12:30 SAST (09:00-10:30 UTC)
  2. Capturing the Complexities of the Entire Population: LGBTIQ+ Specificities - 20 October 2022, 11:00 - 12:30 SAST (09:00-10:30 UTC)
  3. Collecting Social Data on Sex, Gender and Sexualities: Experiences in Field - 03 November 2022, 11:00 - 12:30 SAST (09:00-10:30 UTC)
  4. Research-Policy Interface: Production, Dissemination and Use of LGBTIQ+ Data - 17 November 2022, 11:00 - 12:30 SAST (09:00-10:30 UTC)

Register here to save the dates and attend all editions of the seminar series.


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