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South African president appoints first out gay cabinet minister

Lynne Brown’s selection deemed ‘significant’ and ‘symbolic’

South African President Jacob Zuma, of the African National Congress party, has appointed the country’s first openly gay cabinet minister, The Guardian reports.

Lynne Brown, who once served as premier of Western Cape province, in the southwest, is taking up the public enterprises portfolio. According to the report, Brown is not viewed as a gay rights activist, but her cabinet selection is seen as a significant move in the context of a continent where many countries have laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations. “The last decade has witnessed efforts in some sub-Saharan African countries to further criminalize LGBTI individuals by ostensibly targeting their behaviour, or to impose steeper penalties and broaden the scope of existing laws,” an Amnesty International report, entitled “Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of Same-Sex Conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa,” states.

The Guardian report quotes political commentator Eusebius McKaiser as saying that Brown’s appointment is “sadly, probably newsworthy, I guess, insofar as the social impact of openly gay people in high-profile public leadership positions cannot be discounted in a country like South Africa where levels of homophobia, including violence against black lesbian women, remain rife.” 

Brown’s appointment follows news of Zakhele Mbhele’s election to South Africa’s parliament, making him the first openly gay black MP in Africa. 

While Mbhele, who was elected on the opposition Democratic Alliance ticket, says he is not “singularly defining” himself in this way, he believes it’s important to have visible gay achievers to inspire young LGBT people.