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A Lesson for Engaging with Vulnerable Groups

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brandi Blessett
April 14, 2017


South Africa recognized civil unions in 2006 — seven years after such legislation was enacted in the United States. Although a number of states and local jurisdictions recognized civil unions or same-sex marriage in the United States, it was not until the summer of 2013 that the Supreme Court ruled Section (3) of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was deemed unconstitutional. For the first time, Federal laws would recognize and protect same-sex partners from the “unjust exclusions” of benefits traditionally attributed to heterosexual married couples. Unfortunately, the election of Donald Trump has increased the vulnerability of LGBTQ persons, women and non-white people to be denied the general rights and privileges of citizenship, freedom, fairness and justice. Obviously the contexts of South Africa and the United States are quite different, however engagement with local community leaders helped inform my thinking about the intention of laws juxtaposed to their implementation, as well as the potentially adverse realities for people of color along the LGBTQ spectrum when interacting with state/public officials.

Similar to the United States, White South Africans who identified as LGBTQ received more rights and privileges associated with their sexual identification than non-white people. Black South Africans, especially women, suffered tremendously under the threat of harassment, violence and even death by members of the community. To identify as LGBTQ in many of the Black townships relegates you to a life at the margins — highly stigmatized and discriminated against. For women and men it means always being on guard because “corrective rape” is a real threat. Therefore, much of the work by the leaders and activists concentrate on demystifying the complex misconceptions of sexual identity for people in the community. Various seminars and workshops are offered to help bring awareness to the needs and realities of LGBTQ people. Several organizations also offered “safe houses” for teenagers forced from their home because of their sexual identity. The alienation and isolation for many Black South Africans along the LGBTQ spectrum is real despite a national recognition of civil unions. Therefore, the rhetoric of acceptance, justice and fairness is different in social and cultural settings, but also with respect to engagement with state institutions.

The public response reveals the ways in which public institutions turn a blind eye to the needs of LGBTQ people of color. More focus is needed to examine the intersectional experiences people (e.g. low-income, moderately educated, Black, male or female, LGBTQ), particularly as they are not vaguely, but vastly different from the straight, white, middle-class population. In other words, to have multiple marginalizing identities results in increased discrimination, decreased empathy and reduced access to basic services (e.g. medical/healthcare, education, employment, housing). Similar to the U.S., law enforcement officials in Cape Town have not always worked diligently to solve crimes committed against LGBTQ people. In some cases, state-sponsored violence and intimidation has inflicted the most harm on LGBTQ people and communities of color. However surprisingly, during my interactions with local activists, community leaders and everyday SHEROS (women consistently serving the needs of their community), an unlikely advocate emerged from the diverse stakeholders I spoke with — a Police Captain in one of the townships.

The Police Captain spoke with me about wanting to be seen as an advocate for LGBTQ rights. He even created a role for a local LGBTQ activist to serve as a liaison between the police department and the community when a crime or violence occurred. This powerful relationship recognizes one person can serve as a bridge to open the lines of communication with two groups that typically mistrust one another. The activist serves as a liaison between the police and community, so that when a crime occurs, she is able to work with both parties to bring about justice for LGBTQ victims. Within the context of law enforcement, this level of empathy and awareness is new and very welcomed. There is even an openly gay police officer serving in this department. Although his initial presence raised eyebrows, inside and outside of the department, he is treated like any other officer. Subsequently, his visibility as an officer reinforces the department’s commitment to decreasing discrimination and also serving as an advocate for the needs of LGBTQ township residents. The Police Captain admits, his department is light years ahead of their counterparts, but he was willing to lead by example.

Lessons can be learned from this Cape Town example about effective strategies to engage and build trust with vulnerable groups. Leadership is important because it sets the tone for all subordinates about the values and priorities of an agency. Public administration needs leaders who are empathetic, fair, engaged and willing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. At every turn, executive orders are being signed that are decisively discriminatory and burdensome to people and communities of color. The direct and indirect consequences of such actions are not confined to the impacted communities, but flows out into society at-large. We, as citizens and administrators, must be the example we want to see in the world. The future depends on it!

Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include: cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility, and institutional racism. She can be reached at [email protected].


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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