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 launched an online four-part seminar series, which run every two weeks 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 brought 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, the seminar series reflected 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.

Details for each seminar session, along with speakers’ presentation slides and the sessions’ recording links to YouTube are available below:

Seminar 1: Mind the Data Gap: LGBTIQ+ Inclusion in Social Surveys and the Impact on Policy (Chaired by Sthembiso Pollen Mkhize, Gauteng City-Region Observatory)

The first edition of the seminar series was held on Thursday, 06 October 2022, featuring four speakers:

  1. Rochè Kester, Director of LGBTQIA+ Desk at Gauteng Provincial Government Office of the Premier.
  2. Anthony Brown, Professor of Inclusive Education and Life Orientation at the University of Johannesburg.
  3. Cassandra Roxburgh, Transfeminine Journalist and Associate Editor at Minority Africa.
  4. Neo Nghenavo, Director of Gender and Marginalised Groups at Statistics South Africa.

The four speakers responded to the question: Why is LGBTIQ+ inclusive data collection important and what are the risks and implications of not having such data? and they unpacked issues ranging from the importance of collecting sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data, the dangers of ignoring the SOGI variables in social surveys, understanding the disciplinary lenses in relation to queer-spectrum data and the views regarding data gaps on the LGBTIQ+ population and the impact this has on policy.

Over 40 people attended the session. The seminar’s recording, featuring the speakers’ and participants’ inputs, is available on YouTube (click HERE).

Seminar 2: Capturing the Complexities of the Entire Population: LGBTIQ+ Specificities (Chaired by Pierre Brouard, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender)

The second edition of the seminar series was held on Thursday, 20 October 2022, featuring four speakers:

  1. Carla Sutherland, Director at Justice Work based in the United States of America and was the Principal Investigator of Progressive Prudes commissioned by the Other Foundation in South Africa.
  2. Sakhile Msweli, Clinical Psychologist at KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.
  3. Niel Roux, Director of Service Delivery Statistics at Statistics South Africa.
  4. Eric Ndawula, Executive Director at Lifeline Empowerment Center based in Uganda.

The four speakers delivered presentations, responding to the question: How do we capture complex identity phenomena in social surveys? and they unpacked topics on how to ask about sex, gender and sexuality using relevant language, ethical issues around asking about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in social surveys, the relationship between legal status and self-identity, the role of local naming systems in framing the world as binary, the relationship between inclusion in population studies and specific targeted studies, and local specificities of SOGI labels. The speakers’ presentation slides are available below:

Over 50 people attended the session. The seminar’s recording is available on YouTube (click HERE).

Seminar 3: Collecting Social Data on Sex, Gender and Sexualities: Experiences in Field (Chaired by Vuyiswa Mkhwanazi, Wits Centre for Diversity Studies)

The third edition of the seminar series was held on Thursday, 03 November 2022, featuring three speakers:

  1. Benjamin Robert, Research Director and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey at Human Sciences Research Council.
  2. Mpho Buntse, Executive Director at the South African Higher Education Queer Alliance.
  3. Sthembiso Pollen Mkhize, Junior Researcher and Co-Investigator for the Quality of Life survey at Gauteng City-Region Observatory.

The three speakers delivered presentations and shared their experiences on designing and implementing a survey that includes SOGI variables, methodological approaches around sampling, data collection and weighting, ethical considerations in response to SOGI and some analysis of survey data. The speakers’ presentation slides are available below.

Over 40 people attended the session. The seminar’s recording is available on YouTube (click here).

Seminar 4: Research-Policy Interface: Production, Dissemination and Use of LGBTIQ+ Data (Chaired by Dr Tara Polzer Ngwato, Social Impact Insights Africa)

The last edition of the seminar series was held on Thursday, 17 November 2022, featuring four speakers:

  1. Jennifer Power, Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.
  2. Marcel Korth, Principal of Living with Dignity / Gender-Based Violence at Anglo American.
  3. Likho Bottoman, Director of Social Cohesion and Equity in Education at the Department of Basic Education in South Africa.
  4. Terence Beney, Independent Technical Expert for Program Evaluation and International Development.

The four speakers delivered presentations and shared inputs, responding to the question: Does inclusive data lead or follow data users? i.e. Can researchers put diverse/inclusive gender/sexuality categories into studies before data users (policy makers/donors/implementing partners) are ready for it, or does research follow an enabling/receptive policy/practice environment? and they unpacked topics on dissemination and use of SOGI data for policy and impact, and the relationship between dynamics of power and politics in relation to the inclusion of SOGI data, be administrative or research-related. The speakers’ presentation slides are available below.

Over 40 people attended the session. The seminar’s recording is available on YouTube (click HERE).


Opinion pieces

Mkhize, S. P. (2023). The importance of LGBTIQ+ inclusion in future censuses. Mail&Gurdian. 24 October 2023.

GCRO outputs

Mkhize, S. P. (2021). Protection of LGBTQ+ rights across Africa. Johannesburg: Gauteng City-Region Observatory.

Academic publications

Metheny, N., Mkhize, S. P., Scott, D., and Hatcher, A. (2024). Violence victimization and depressive symptoms among a sub-sample of sexual and gender minority adults in a population-based South African study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 0(0), pp.1-23.

Mkhize, S. P. and Mthembu, A. (2023). Unpacking pervasive heteronormativity in sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities to embrace multiplicity of sexualities. Progress in Human Geography, 47(3), pp. 377-391.

Mkhize, S. P. and Maharaj, P. (2023). Heteronormativity in Health Settings: Realities of LGBT Youth’s Access to Healthcare in South Africa. In Young People, Violence and Strategic Interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 103-120). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Mkhize, S.P. and Maharaj, P. (2021). Meeting the sexual health needs of LGBT youth: Perceptions and experiences of university students in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Journal of Social Service Research, 47(1), pp. 56-72.

Mkhize, S. P. and Maharaj, P. (2020). Structural violence on the margins of society: LGBT student access to health services. Agenda, 34(2), pp. 104-114.

Last updated: 04 June 2024.


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