A kiss is just a kiss, or so the song goes – but not if it’s a gay kiss at one of South Africa’s oldest and most conservative, rugby-playing universities.
Students at the predominantly Afrikaans Stellenbosch University have been seething at a decision to publish a photograph of two men kissing on the front of the fortnightly student newspaper Die Matie. Editions have been slashed and torn up with some students saying the picture was offensive. But others have posted letters of support on Facebook, and some gay students saying the furor had given them the confidence to come out.
Despite South Africa’s liberal Constitution, which enshrines gay and lesbian rights, including civil partnerships, there is an undercurrent of homophobia.
The picture had its roots in Stellenbosch’s fledgling gay and lesbian community decision to join a heterosexual ‘"kiss-a-thon" in the town. Student newspaper photo editor Vanessa Smeets said the decision to publish was not taken lightly.
“We knew it would be controversial, but not this level of reaction, which has been overwhelming," she said. "We had planned to use a kiss by an interracial couple but we didn’t in the end and settled for this one after checking it was OK."
“Reactions have been mixed," she added. "Most women seem OK, but a lot of Afrikaans men and African men were very unhappy. Some have been using the paper as dart boards, tearing them up.”
Roberto Millan, a student and staff member at Stellenbosch, is chairman of Lesbigay, a student gay and lesbian society at the university, which has about 30,000 students.
“There has been a lot of negative reaction among students, which perhaps isn’t surprising with Stellenbosch’s conservative reputation, but we’ve also had a lot of positive support. It can be an intimidating place to be gay or lesbian but there are plenty here," he says.
“I was thrilled by the decision to publish because we want to start a debate – we’re not going away," he continues. "There is too much homophobia across the continent which has been swept under the blanket, fueled by Western churches.”
News and social-networking sites have been abuzz with the picture. One visitor to the IOL news site said: “I am telling you straight ... it is disgusting.”
Others were more supportive, with one stating: “It’s 2010 people - don't you think it’s time we started to accept individuals for who they are without prejudging them and generalising? This picture is not in the least offensive.” Another wrote: “I am for once proud that gay people can be accepted in our society."