South Africans are embracing sexual diversity, but challenges in the workplace remain

Viacom Global Consumer Insights has conducted three rounds of research in the last decade around global attitudes towards sexual diversity. In this, the most recent research, we spoke to 120,000 respondents from 67 countries – including over 4,000 South Africans – to learn how members of the LGBT community are perceived today., thus this study is representative of South Africans with access to online platforms and not the country as a whole.

Support for same sex marriage is on the rise in South Africa. When polled in 2016, 40% of South Africans surveyed supported same sex marriage. In 2018, our research figures jumped to 47% of South Africans saying they supported it, while the global average only increased to 34%. Our numbers also showed that teens and young adults are more likely to support same sex marriage than people older than 35. While acceptance among the older population could be better, the rise in acceptance amongst teens and young adults is a clear indication of positively shifting attitudes towards the LGBT community in South Africa.

While support for equal marriage has improved, so has the perception around LGBT people. Nearly 1 in 2 South Africans said that over the last five years, their perceptions of LGBT people have improved. This is in contrast to the global average of 1 in 3 people saying the same thing. And perhaps more importantly, locally most (87%) LGBT people surveyed said the attitudes toward sexual diversity are either improving or staying the same, higher than the global average of 81%.

The biggest catalyst for change is knowing someone. The South Africans we polled were 35% more likely to agree that equal rights and protections should extend to everyone (including those attracted to the same sex) if they personally knew an LGBT person. Interacting with LGBT people in person clearly impacts on individuals in a far stronger and more positive manner than simply hearing about them third-hand from others and through media.

Perceptions are changing, in part because of media representation. While 57% of South Africans say they don’t know an LGBT person, we discovered that acceptance is helped by how LGBT people appear in the media. This means brands and media companies have the power and responsibility to transform opinions with representative programming.

Celebrity endorsement matters. We also found that 32% of South Africans surveyed, and 1 in 3 teens, said they would be more likely to accept LGBT people if their favourite celebrity did too. We saw in our results that celebrity endorsements and LGBT-friendly content together have nearly as much influence on teens’ opinions as knowing someone in the community personally. Through the roles they play on our screens and their actions outside of the limelight, celebrities inspire respect in viewers, which in turn influences opinions. This can be leveraged in content and advertising to shift viewers’ perceptions of the LGBT community.

Despite positive progress, there is still work to be done. Our research showed that despite growing support, LGBT people still experience discrimination. In South Africa, 30% of LGBT people have experienced some sort of physical violence as a result of their sexual orientation.

Workplace intolerance remains high. 35% of LGBT respondents say they have experienced mild or severe workplace discrimination because of who they are attracted to, versus the global average of 32%. These numbers aren’t too far apart, which means South Africa’s LGBT intolerance is within the same range as other countries, broadly speaking.

Familial rejection is still common. Nearly 2 in 5 LGBT people (31%) say that they still face rejection or disapproval from their own families upon coming out. The rejection itself is a major psychological blow, but it’s the realisation that the people closest to them aren’t supportive that’s often more harmful in the long term.

Together, we can make a difference. From this study we can conclude that as a leading media house, and in partnership with brands that advertise across our platforms, the onus is on us to continue our strong and equal representation of the LGBT community. This is shown to positively impact perceptions, particularly when it comes to featuring openly gay celebrities like Somizi and Lasizwe across our channels and programmes.

By giving these celebrities a voice that is heard by an ever-growing number of people, Viacom, our partners, and our advertisers can help to affect the kind of positive social change that South Africa and the world is in desperate need of: one in which all people, regardless of their background, can be accepted as individuals and positively recognised for their contributions to society at large.