Ageing in the LGBT community: a positive outlook for older lesbian women in South Africa?

*Glossary of terms and abbreviations:
LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender; GFBT stands for Gay, Female Bisexual, and Transgender; ‘Closeted’ means secretive about one’s sexual orientation.

Author: Geoffrey Ogwaro1

lgbtiq older women

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (thereafter the Constitution), protects older lesbian women through its provision that prohibits discrimination based on an intersectional number of grounds for lesbian women: age, gender, sex, marital status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, disability, and conscience.I have chosen these eight grounds for discrimination because they may apply, at any one given time or different times, to the average situation of older lesbian women: Older lesbian women will be older, have a sexual orientation that is same gender-loving, identify as biological women, might not be married or might never have married, have never had children, have age-related disabilities, might be discriminated against for the fact they are women, and believe in lesbian equality/gender equality and strongly and publicly express these views therefore becoming victims or prisoners of conscience.

The Constitution also protects the inherent dignity of everyone and stipulates that that dignity must be respected and protected.3 This provision will definitely also apply to older lesbian women too.

South Africa has legislation that governs the wellbeing of older persons. The Older Persons Act 13 of 2006 defines ‘older persons’ as ‘in the case of a female is 60 years of age or older’. The age is higher for males and stands at 65 years of age.4  However, there is nothing in the Act that deals with diverse older persons which highlights the unique challenges that older lesbian women (or the wider LGBT community) might face in terms of ageing.5

The question that this article addresses is what is the situation of older lesbian women in South Africa. The article does not restrict itself to the age of 60 but accommodates the other ages below 60 but above 50 because there is very limited research on older lesbian women to begin with, and older lesbian women who are from the age of 60 going up. This could be for the reason that not many older lesbian women are visible because they came from an era when LGBT rights were not much emphasized and LGBT identities were on the down low for the most part. Additionally, there is very little research on older lesbian women- specific wellbeing in South Africa. Therefore the article alludes to general LGBT aggregated research that would highlight statistics of older LGBT persons in general. However, the situations faced by older GFBT persons can be generalized to older lesbian women as well.

Human rights violations against older lesbian women in South Africa – is their need to fill some gaps?
Having read through many media reports of the murder, rape and assault of younger lesbian women in the country, one would expect that many older lesbian women would be closeted in fear of being stigmatized and violated.  However, a research done in 2016 by the Love Not Hate (LNH) Campaign conducted by OUT LGBT Well-being, found that 55% of older LGBT persons sampled were open about their sexuality to those around them despite the danger of being stigmatized or violated; 51% of those LGBT persons from the age of 55 going up were reported to not have any fear of discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and; 88% of those LGBT from and above the age of 55 reported not having experienced any discrimination in the health care sector due to being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.6 However, the same research showed that 20% of those older LGBT persons from and above the age of 55 said they had experienced verbal insults directed at them because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; 9% had been threatened with physical violence; 7% had had personal property or possessions damaged or destroyed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and; 4% had been sexually abused or raped because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the previous 24 months.7 Although these statistics do not disaggregate the data according to sex or gender, the picture could be as grim for older lesbian women too.

Though a significantly higher percentage of those older LGBT individuals interviewed reported being free from any violations against them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, a smaller but worth noting percentage reported violations as serious as sexual abuse and rape, which, though not exclusively, is a violation that affects disproportionately more women than men.

The problem is that no significantly larger and specific research exists on the human rights situation for older lesbian women in the country and until this gap is filled, not much can be said about older lesbian women. The recommendation would be to start disaggregating data and research to target older lesbian women in particular. The other alternative would be to centre research around lesbian women and girls and in that way aggregate them by age category.

1 Geoffrey Ogwaro heads the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression Unit of the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. He is also a DPhil student writing his thesis on the participation of LGBT individuals and groups in the Equality Courts of South Africa.
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, section 9(3).
As above, section 10.
4 Older persons Act 13 of 2006, section 1.
5 Neil Henderson, and Kathryn Almack, Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender ageing and care: A literature study
6 Hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in South Africa, 2016, OUT LGBT Well-being.
Same as above.


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