A life-threatening language barrier

Anova Health Institute's Nina Morris Lee writes that language can help overcome the stigma gay men live with.

Did you know that there’s no word for gay in Xhosa? Any word to describe a gay person is either derogatory or borrowed from other South African languages.

Words used to describe gay men include: isitabane which is interpreted as a man who has chosen to act like a woman, abantu abathambileyo meaning not manly and bhuti-sisi, which translated means brother-sister and implies that a person is confused because they don’t know what gender they identify with.

These words are not only offensive, but also speak to a lack of acceptance of men who are not heterosexual. This non-acceptance can have huge repercussions for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) when it comes to their sexual behaviour as well as accessing HIV testing and treatment.

To raise awareness around these and other issues, the Anova Health Institute is spearheadingwethebrave.co.za, the first large scale sexual health campaign ever in South Africa to specifically address gay, bisexual men and other MSM.

Studies show that not only does the stigma emanating from families, health care providers, and the communities result in MSM engaging in high-risk sexual behaviour, but the experience of discrimination based on sexual orientation at clinics and health facilities acts as an important deterrent to seeking medical care and going for HIV tests.

Furthermore, health facilities are viewed as places where health care workers threaten MSM’s rights to privacy and confidentiality by engaging in gossip and homophobic verbal harassment. Fortunately, the wethebrave.co.za campaign links to Anova’s MSM-friendly Health4Men clinical services in the public sector and independent clinicians in the private sector, ensuring that gay, bisexual men and other MSM can access testing as well as medical care within a supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Xhosa is spoken by approximately 7.6 million people, or about 18 percent of the South African population. Some say that the language’s lack of evolution is due to there being no academic work taking place in Xhosa which is where ideas and new ways of being are articulated.

However, it’s interesting that there are words for concepts like cellphone and virtual reality. We believe that the more we talk about finding words to describe sexual identity within Xhosa, the sooner we will develop the language to talk about and thereby gain more acceptance of sexual diversity. Infact, wethebrave.co.za recently created a radio ad with this very aim.

For more information on the campaign you can visit www.wethebrave.co.za or follow it on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Join the conversation with #BraveEnough

* Nina Morris Lee is the head of marketing at Anova Health Institute.

* Email your views to thulani.magazi@inl.co.za