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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Two delegates greet one another at an international conference on sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights in on November 15, 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. The conference focused on the challenges faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities in Africa. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

Mounting violence haunts South Africa’s gays and mobilizes activists

Rainbow nation besieged by attacks including 'corrective rape' against lesbians.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Just as Nono was beginning to understand her lesbian sexual identity at the age of 18, a male cousin began to rape her.

Before the first attack, he admonished, “Now I am going to teach you how to be a lady.” He threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

Nono, who has asked that her last name not be used, learned two years ago that her cousin had been shot and killed in an unrelated incident.

“In my heart I was so happy,” the 29-year-old said of her cousin’s death. “I thought, ‘Now I can live my life like I want as a lesbian.’”

Nono said she never reported her abuse to police. She belongs to a silent majority of gay South African women who have been victimized by “corrective rape,” a controversial term describing the practice of straight men raping lesbians to “correct” their sexual orientation.

“We have won so many rights to love more freely, but it hasn’t protected our bodily integrity.”
~Melanie Judge, executive committee member of the Coalition for African Lesbians

This year a series of highly publicized attacks in Pretoria, Cape Town and the Johannesburg area — including the rape and murder of lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza in the same township where national women’s soccer team captain Eudy Simelane was killed in 2008 — have pushed “corrective rape” back into the headlines and spurred the South African government to convene an interim task force on gender-based violence and to establish another task force to draft hate crimes legislation.

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And critically, an increasing number of victimized women are stepping forward and banding together to assert their right to be safe in their communities.

“We have won so many rights to love more freely, but it hasn’t protected our bodily integrity,” said Melanie Judge, a lesbian activist, social commentator and executive committee member of the Coalition for African Lesbians.

Danger in the 'rainbow nation'

South Africa is at once the best places in the world — and one of the worst — to be gay. It offers comprehensive official rights rooted in the struggle to overthrow apartheid, with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. But the ongoing threat of “corrective rape,” part of a pervasive and well-documented pattern of sexual violence against women and children, demonstrates that the reality on the ground conflicts with that progressive ideology. According to two national studies conducted in 2010, one in three women surveyed had been raped in the past year and one in four men admitted to committing rape in their lifetimes.

The statistics on “corrective rape” are extremely difficult to document, though activists and researchers agree reported cases appear to be on the rise as more lesbian women break their silence and report their attacks to police. There may also be a ‘copycat effect’ occurring, said Dipika Nath, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Program.

“As news of attacks spread, people may get inspired or learn to do the same in their communities,” she said.

Media outlets around the world have reported that up to 10 lesbians a week are raped in Cape Town alone. But Nath adamantly refutes the number, saying “there is no evidence anywhere” to support it. The lack of solid statistics has led to a conflating of "corrective rape" with all forms of violence against lesbians and to the reporting of sensational and unsubstantiated claims about the extent of the problem, reported the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights last June.

“Rape is rape,” said Bulelwa Panda, manager of iThemba Lam, a Christian center for reconciliation and healing that operates a safe house for LGBT people in Oliver Tambo Village outside Cape Town. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight. At the end of the day, you’re a woman.”

Organizations like Luleki Sizwe, a Cape Town non-profit organized to fight violence against lesbians, have focused their attention specifically on the problem of “corrective rape.” Last year the group started an online petition on that garnered 170,000 signatures from activists around the world. The petition along with protests and pressure from other gay rights groups motivated the government to partner with the organization last June to appoint an interim task force on gender-based violence.

The organization has lobbied strenuously on behalf of Noxolo Nkosana, a lesbian stabbed four

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