Exploring Transgender and Lesbian Use of The Internet in South Africa


The EROTICS research in South Africa focuses on the internet usage of South African transgender and lesbian people. This study is informed by the argument that internet regulation policy must be based on empirical evidence in terms of what people’s actual and not assumed internet usage is. It seeks to develop empirical knowledge and responds to the following three research questions:

  1. What is the nature and form of regulatory policy and censorship currently in South Africa and how does this impact or potentially impact on the freedom of sexual expression?
  2. What are the ways in which transgender and lesbian people use the internet to negotiate and perform their sexuality?
  3. How do such subjects understand the spaces offered in this way?

The context of internet usage includes the recognition of a digital divide and the consequent uneven access and discrepancies manifest along the lines of demographic differences of sex, race, income levels and geography/location. In 2009 the number of Internet users in South Africa increased to more than 10% of the population for the first time. In addition what is termed the “experience curve”1 states that there is approximately a five year lag between using the internet and using advanced internet applications including social media. This suggests that many South Africans who do not use the internet presently will increasingly have access, and that those who do not use many of the social and retail aspects currently will do so increasingly.

The research is informed by theoretical understandings of the internet as public sphere/s and as enabling virtual communities. It also draws on gender theory which recognises the gender order which critiques patriarchy and identifies its heteronormative functioning. The heteronormative discourse of the dominant gender order assumes heterosexuality as the norm and is intolerant of any sense of gender fluidity. All forms of contesting gender identities whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) are constituted as ‘other’. An important distinction is made between “sex” as referring to biological characteristics of male and female, and “gender” to social and cultural ways of performing one’s gender.

In South Africa, in spite of the liberal Constitution, homosexuality and other non-heteronormative positions are met with intolerance and violence in many instances. For black lesbians the challenges can be particularly dire as homosexuality is constructed as a Western import, and this belief is reinforced by the lack of visibility of women in same-sex relationships. The policing of lesbian women has taken the form of extreme physical abuse including “corrective rape” and murder.

The policy terrain and the regulation of the internet in South Africa

The first question in this study is concerned with the nature and form of regulatory policy and censorship currently in South Africa and how this impacts or potentially impacts on the freedom of sexual expression. On one hand, the country’s regulatory framework and the laws and policies regulating the internet and that pertain to sexuality are informed by the Constitution, internationally lauded for its progressive Bill of Rights, with sections that refer to freedom of expression, access to information, equality and lack of discrimination on lines of gender and sexual orientation, and privacy. Within this framework, the laws and policies have to be consistent with these rights and recourse to the law is possible to ensure them. On the other hand, our analysis suggests that the laws and policies that have been passed tend to be punitive and mostly censorial, albeit with the intention to protect the vulnerable in our society (mostly children from pornography). For example, the Film and Publications Amendment Act (No. 34 of 1999), which included in its definition of publication any messages and communications on distributed networks, including the internet, and compels citizens to report anyone involved in the production, distribution or possession of child pornography, with later amendments to the Act that increased the penalties for offences involving child pornography and others.

Internet usage by transgender and lesbian people

In seeking to answer questions 2 and 3 above about internet usage and attitudes to the internet, the focus is first directed to transgender and then lesbian usage. Multiple methods of analysis were used in order to obtain rich data. They included critical discourse analysis of postings in the case of a transgender site and of the South African lesbian “websphere”2. In addition, face to face interviews were undertaken with transgender respondents who used Gender Dynamix (GDX), and electronic questionnaires employed for volunteers in relation to the lesbian leg of the research. The postings on a transgender website (Gender Dynamix) were analysed by focusing on two forums, namely Boy Talk and Girl Talk, and through the gender lens described above. This is appropriate as while transgender people might reject their assigned sex, they do not necessarily question the gendered roles that patriarchy proposes. The analysis takes the form of critical discourse analysis and particular themes and patterns were identified.

With reference to Boy Talk, the series of milestones transmen achieve in the transitioning process was foregrounded. Because of the complexity of transitioning and the length of time it takes, these issues predominate and all the stages of transitioning were raised. Then, the achievements of milestones are greeted in a distinctly celebratory way. It was notable that few of the threads flagged the difficulties of transitioning or foregrounded being marginalised (on account of identifying as transsexual rather than their assigned gender) as a topic although it was alluded to. Rather, the tone was generally positive despite the harsh challenges facing transpeople. The postings also presented GDX as an apprenticeship. The argument has been made that internet sites can provide a space for people to try out identities and begin to inhabit or practice those identities. They used the GDX as a space to perform gender. One striking aspect of gender performance relates to gendered language and the transmen addressed each other frequently by using words that are synonymous with “man” to signal that the person being addressed is male and the forms of address are markers of being masculine. Another significant finding is that the actual postings on Boy Talk were generally short, generally factual and less emotional or personal than on Girl Talk. In other words they were consistent with what is considered masculine forms of communication.

While the postings on Girl Talk were different to those in Boy Talk in many ways, there was a crucial similarity, namely the focus on achieving milestones in transitioning. When offering support to members who had expressed anxieties about their processes, the posts advocated positive attitudes, yet were very mindful of challenges faced. A clear theme of difference in Girl Talk related to the frequent postings that demonstrate caring and empathy, a recognisable feminine role. Also notable was the use of feminine signifiers in the language used in Girl Talk, which contrasted markedly with the “dude” of Boy Talkand were consistent with the feminine codes of conduct naturalised under patriarchy.

The subsequent interviews with male to female (MTF) and female to male (FTM) respondents are structured in the research in terms of the disruption that being transgender brought to their lives and the subsequent stages that respond to addressing this disruption. Notably it was through the media mostly that the respondents became aware of the category of transgender. Within mainstream media transgender was treated as freakish. It was also through the media, specifically the internet, that they acquired other information, this time from other transgender people and sites that enabled them to understand their sexualities and act in terms of transitioning. The greatest values in terms of the internet were attributed to its information potential and in terms of a sense of community or solidarity that is possible. It is argued that the internet and Gender Dynamix serve to enable this transgender virtual community in terms of the three identified criteria that constitute a community, namely emotional investment, social interaction and open channels of communication3.

Investigating lesbian usage of the internet was more complex. It became apparent that the online lesbian network was more fragmented and complex than anticipated and this recognition then informed our research process. A lesbian websphere was developed and it became evident that there were different kinds of sites, including dating, lifestyle and political or activist sites, all addressing different interests.

The dating sites are confined to dating and relationships and so operate specifically in the private sphere. However, they are significant as a space to articulate sexual identity, to potentially come out, and create a personal lesbian social network. Being a virtual space renders a dating site physically safe particularly for those lesbians who find it necessary to hide their sexual orientation for self-protection. This sense of identity is also an essential precursor to any identity politics that might ensue.

Lifestyle sites differed in that they are the products of niche marketing and thus have a strong consumerist impulse. They are hybrid sites with strands of dating and politics, albeit in the form of soft news stories. Critical scholars have questioned whether such sites can empower their patrons as citizens since any political discourse is constrained by the selections and constructions of content producers. While these sites do not meet all of the criteria suggested fundamental to an online community, namely open channels of communication, they are significant for lesbian users’ sense of community.

Finally, the categorisation of sites as political was based on whether they contained postings relating to lesbian rights and struggles, although they might potentially serve both social and political purposes. Of those examined, there was little evidence of social engagement but they played a valuable authoritative and informative role. While they assume an emotional investment by the members of the site, the other criteria for a virtual community, social interaction and open channels of communication, were not met at the time of the research.

In answer to the question posed whether these sites constitute a lesbian community, the answers needed to be tentative. While there might be a strong South African lesbian community, there was no evidence of a strong virtual community. That there could be a more vibrant community online is clear. With the migration to Facebook and the consequent erosion of such spaces, it is possible that some new or different space or surface could emerge as a deliberative space for South African lesbians, both for the personal and the political.

The next stage of the research focused on lesbians’ perceptions of the value and dangers of the internet using questionnaires administered online. They were structured to investigate internet details related to identity and sexuality; internet access and attitudes to internet; respondents’ use and perception of the relevance of the internet to gays and lesbians; online/offline interactions; and sex and the internet. Access to the internet in South Africa is linked to class, and consequently race as a result of its apartheid history and so in spite of various attempts to get more black respondents, the majority were white. That few black lesbians came forward can be attributed to several factors, including less access and the greater risks associated with being outed.

There was considerable agreement in terms of the value of the internet as providing information, particularly around issues of sexuality. Similarly, it was considered valuable for the interactivity and networking it enabled. Contrary to the sense of the internet as not fully serving as a community established in the critique of the lesbian websphere above, the internet was viewed positively in terms of social interaction and open channels of communication, and as a virtual community. Few of the respondents perceived the internet as particularly dangerous although they conceded danger for other more vulnerable people, particularly children. Associated with this, the majority opposed any censorship.


Our analysis suggests contradictions between the enabling and progressive Constitution on the one hand and the punitive and censorial policies and regulatory framework. It is within these contradictions that lesbian and transgender people, the subjects of the inquiry in this report, have to construct and perform their identities, including their sexualities. The censorial policies and regulatory framework constrain the potential of the internet’s democratic and empowering potential, specifically for those who are marginalised in any way.

It is argued that regardless of current internet usage, it is particularly at times of confrontation or when civil liberties are under threat (such as when society marginalises and violates the rights of sexual minority groups), that the internet is potentially a space for those struggles, a space where counter-publics can cohere and provide sufficient resistance to protect freedoms and human rights and to challenge the construction of the gender order. However, such a liberatory space is threatened by the introduction of censorial policies and laws such as those that exist and are being planned in South Africa.

Read the full South africa country report:

South Africa: The internet and sexual identities: Exploring transgender and lesbian use of the internet in South Africa
Jeanne Prinsloo and Nicolene C. McLean (Rhodes University)
and Relebohile Moletsane (University of KwaZulu-Natal)

  • 1. Goldstuck, A. (2010). Internet access In South Africa 2010. Johannesburg, World Wide Worx: 157.
  • 2. Foot, K. (2006). Web sphere analysis and Cybeculture Studies. Critical Cyberculture Studies. D. Silver and A. Massanari. New York, New York University Press: 88-
  • 3. Campbell, J. E. (2007). Virtual citizens or dream consumers: looking for civic community on Gay.com. Queer online. Media technology and sexuality. K. O’Riordan and D. J. Phillips. New York, Peter Lang: 197-2163