What made this moment perhaps surprising was that the graduates were lesbian women. Fort Hare is in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, which is known to hold conservative idea about sex and sexuality. But these graduates were self confident and proud. They made no attempt to hide their non-conforming expressions of gender: a more masculine style of dressing, for instance.
How, in an environment that is considered conservative and even sometimes openly homophobic, did these women develop such a strong sense of self-confidence? I was able to find out through a project I conducted as part of my ongoing research about youth, sexuality and gender. The purpose of all my research is to try and shift attitudes towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGTBIQ) community at Fort Hare through increased visibility and the normalisation of queer identities.
The research project in question was conducted with black lesbian students to understand their experiences at Fort Hare University. Black here refers to people of African descent; the majority of Fort Hare’s student population is black.
I found that family support, being valued in their own homes and enjoying strong support from their social structures – friends and, in some cases, churches – were key to instilling these women with a strong sense of self. This allowed them to live openly as lesbians even when sometimes faced with discrimination. It also contributed to their personal growth.
The university’s own work in tackling discrimination also played a vital role in helping the students to feel happier, more accepted and confident. This suggests that higher education institutions can do a great deal to help their LGBTIQ students feel more at home, which could be an important intervention in a country and on a continent with high levels of homophobia and violence against lesbian women.
Individual academics and departments can get involved in producing research that seeks to dispel myths and encourage tolerance of different sexualities, as my colleagues and I around South Afric have done.
Others explained how their families had shown support by accepting their romantic partners and welcoming these partners into their homes. This helped the women to feel valued at home. Lesbian students attributed their social competence, leadership qualities and well-being to their parents’ positive attitudes towards same-sex relationships. They also spoke of family members encouraging them to find a support group in the form of friends or sports clubs. This provides spaces in which they can be visible in their communities and develop strong networks.
Previous studies have suggested that most religious people oppose gender equality and acceptance of lesbians. There are some positive exceptions in the traditionally conservative Eastern Cape province. Sihle (not her real name), explained how her brother, who is religious, and members of their church valued her:
My brother is protective of me and where I come from in Port Elizabeth, the church members do not exclude us from the activities that concern women.
Other participants revealed that they never experienced discrimination from campus–based church societies. This echoes the findings of a study about LGBTIQ students’ experiences at Walter Sisulu University, which is also in the Eastern Cape. This suggests that there is at least some acceptance of lesbians by the province’s religious community.
Lecturers also emerged as a critical source of support for lesbian students. Participants told me that they received emotional, psychological and academic support from their lecturers. One told said that the university had “created a platform for sexual minorities to be recognised in all aspects”.
Part of this work had been done through the establishment of a task team that aimed to alleviate discrimination towards LGBTIQ students. The student commented that the inclusion of gay men and lesbian women on this task team had contributed to her sense of feeling “emotionally stable”.
Many of the students also took part in sport at the university, which offered an additional layer of support.
But another important characteristic of individuals, and one that is the subject of anti-discrimination laws in many countries, including Australia, is sexual orientation.
In contrast to the mountain of research on gender pay differentials, there have been very few studies that have attempted to estimate the magnitude of differentials between sexual minorities and the heterosexual majority in Australia.
In part, this reflects the absence of adequate data sources that identify sexual minorities. In an attempt to rectify this deficiency, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, Australia’s only large-scale population-representative household panel survey, recently included a question about sexual identity.
Specifically, a question was included in “wave 12” (conducted in 2012) – the self-administered component of the study – that requested respondents to indicate whether they thought of themselves as: “heterosexual or straight”, “gay or lesbian”, “bisexual”, or whether they fell into some other undefined group. In addition, response options of “unsure/don’t know” and “prefer not to say” were also provided. In total, this question was answered by just over 15,000 people. Of these, about 1.4% identified as gay or lesbian, and another 1.4% identified as bisexual.
Armed with these responses, researchers can now begin to correlate sexual identity with other data collected in the HILDA Survey about economic and social outcomes, including, for example, labour market earnings.
This is the subject of recent joint research I conducted with San Diego State University Associate Professor of Economics, Joseph Sabia. Specifically, we looked at the annual earnings outcomes of Australians aged 18 to 64 (but after excluding full-time students) with a view to quantifying systematic differences in the earnings of people with different sexual identities, the sources of any differentials, and whether wage trajectories over the preceding decade followed different paths depending on one’s sexual orientation.
So what did we find?
First, and consistent with US research on this issue, gay men in Australia earn much less than heterosexual men, while lesbian women earn much more than heterosexual women. For gay men, the size of this “penalty” is about 20%, and this does not alter much when we condition on personal and job characteristics. For lesbian women their premium is around 40% but declines to around 33% when we condition on selected characteristics.
Second, the earnings penalty for gay men is due to both a lesser likelihood of employment and a lower hourly wage. The earnings premium for lesbian women, on the other hand, is almost entirely due to the longer hours they work; it is not because lesbian women are paid more per hour.
Third, it is gay men who live with a same-sex partner who suffer the largest wage penalties. Indeed, the annual earnings of a single gay man is not any lower than that of an otherwise comparable single heterosexual man.
Fourth, there is some evidence that the wages penalties faced by gay men are partly explained by differential earnings growth. That is, that wages growth is not as rapid for gay men, suggesting possibly that they face greater barriers to promotion and career advancement than heterosexual men.
When considered in their totality, these findings provide support for the claim that gay men continue to face discrimination in the Australian labour market. In contrast, this does not appear to be true for lesbian women. What explains this very different outcome?
One explanation is simply that attitudes towards gay men, especially by heterosexual men, are less positive than they are towards lesbian women. And of course, men are still much more likely than women to be in positions where they are responsible for decisions about who to hire, fire and promote.
A second possible explanation is that may be easier for lesbian women, on average, to disguise their sexual orientation than it is for gay men.