Individual rights, collective change: a personal reflection on advocacy | MovementsRethink part 3

To regulate or not to regulate, it seems to be an important question in social movements. In many ways a lot of our advocacy is aimed at changing legislation, policy, etc.; about trying to get specific legislation and policy implemented in a certain way; about pushing for new legislation and policy. The complexity of this is clear, of course… We push for anti-discrimination laws, we fight again criminalisation laws, we complain and push about implementation of anti hate crimes legislation. While I’m not want to generalise, it seems that legislation is quite often on the mind of social movements.

Yesterday we had a discussion about this in a small group, in part sparked by someone bringing up the law regarding a third category “undefined” in addition to male and female as legal genders on identity documents; specifically catering to those not fitting into the male-female binary. While this move seems progressive, and a step forward for transgender and genderqueer persons who feel they need this in order to be acknowledged socially and/or legally, it raised quite a few questions for me. In part it felt that it showed how arbitrary legal gender can be, and adding a third category didn’t make as much sense to me as just getting rid of the gender on IDs all together. After all in South Africa they got rid of race on IDs, which didn’t bring down civilisation as we know it; Religion was eliminated long ago in other places and the world is still turning. What’s more, statistics are still recorded, one of the reasons why gender is sometimes claimed as a necessary recording.

The topic brought up some personal reflection regarding advocacy and activism…

In terms of, for example, same gender sexual practices and sex work, we of course would push for de-regulations and decriminalisation; in terms of hate crime and anti-discrimination we’d push for more regulation and legislation. But I think the issue is that we focus too much on this legislative aspect. An example to me is South Africa, which is over-legislated; different legal systems (African customary, Dutch and British based,…) and often conflicting legislation. And if it is not enough, there are NGOs pushing for better hate crimes legislation considering the amount of violence towards gay, lesbian and transgender persons, and there are those proposing a new bill that would decriminalise sex work and put basic health regulations in place. The Civil Union act (legalising same-gender marriage) was pushed through, following a constitutional court ruling. If measured by the constitution, one could possibly create a legal paradise for any social minority; but how is this valuable when the people on the ground are left behind? How many people in South Africa support the Civil Union Act that was pushed through by activists by using the constitution and its provisions? Personally, I don’t think it would be a majority; this doesn’t mean I don’t think those equal rights are valid, of course, but it can be construed as confrontational, and I do believe there is some truth in that. (Note: I’m not claiming that legislation is entirely irrelevant, or saying the Civil Union Act shouldn’t have been pushed for.)

In many ways we are trying to convince a majority in society of our views, of what we consider to be right, and construing things that we believe as stigmatising and discriminatory as things that should be changed. When it comes to pushing for legislation regarding this, I feel conflicted at times on an almost philosophical level. Individual rights are pushed, and one can argue that they are individual and thus others have no business to interfere or deny those (justifiably so), but social transformation, social change, is mostly a collective process, even if it is for the benefit of individual rights.

In the background of all the work I end up doing, either individually or at the NGO I work at, I continually keep measuring myself according to these questions, in the hope that it would shape my actions for the better.


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