LGBT+ South Africans said the continent’s first Queer Wellness Centre, which opened on Tuesday, would spare gay and trans people the shame, rejection and confusion that they often face when seeking medical care.
The founders of the centre in Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city, said it would provide clients with “stigma-free” sexual and mental health services, as well as treatments that focused specifically on LGBT+ people’s need.
“We hope that other African countries will see that if we can do this, then it is possible for them to do it too,” said Mzamo Mbelle, a medical doctor working with the centre, which was decorated with paintings for sale by LGBT+ artists.
Africa has some of the world’s most prohibitive laws against homosexuality, with 33 nations out of 54 criminalising same-sex relations, according to the ILGA, an LGBT+ rights group, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.
SA is the only country on the continent to allow same-sex marriage and its 1996 constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
There are five LGBT+-friendly clinics in SA but none specifically catering to gay and trans people, said Mbelle, giving the example of anal pap smears, which are recommended for people with HIV.
Almost 8 million South Africans are HIV positive — the largest population in the world — government data shows.
Claudia Do Vale, co-founder of the centre, said she used her life savings of about R1m to fund the project after realising LGBT+ patients were not receiving the care they needed.
“For example, a transgender woman may not be checked for both prostate and breast cancer,” said Do Vale, a doctor specialising in kidney care. “Doctors may not check if flu medication interferes with intersex patients’ hormone therapy.”
The centre will also help fast track transgender affirmation therapy by connecting patients with surgical specialists and hormone therapy.
“Health is a human right,” said Thami Kotlolo, an LGBT+ activist at the launch ceremony, adding that gay and trans patients were often turned away or misdiagnosed by medics with limited understanding of the LGBT+ community.
“We face homophobia in schools, workspaces and hospitals. We so appreciate having a safe space like this.”