SOUTH AFRICA – Being a lesbian in South Africa can be a death sentence.
“If I walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand, I’m not sure if I am going to make it to the end of the street,” Xolelwa Ngebulana, an openly gay 26-year-old woman living near Cape Town said.
In recent years, gruesome stories of murder and rape have grabbed South African headlines, but little has been done to bring offenders to justice.
Noxolo Nogwaza, a South African lesbian and LGBTI rights activist, was raped and murdered in April 2011. Eudy Simelane, a lesbian who played for South Africa's national soccer team and was the first open lesbian in her township, was repeatedly raped before being stabbed and thrown naked into a nearby drainage ditch in 2008. Nineteen-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana was stoned and stabbed to death in 2006, just steps from her home in the township of Khayelitsha.
The list goes on.
While the newspapers have been filled with these stories, seizing attention with every lurid detail, there is no way to put a number on how many men and women have been killed or raped because of their sexuality. Equal rights for all are granted in the constitution, but the South African police do not count hate crimes separately nor are there any laws in the constitution specifically regarding these crimes.
Members of the LGBTI community are targeted and often unable to seek help from the police or politicians. Many victims say it is a pervasive anti-gay attitude that some South Africans have, including members of the police, which prevents them from seeking justice. They say although they are promised protection, it is not guaranteed.
It’s always after the fact that laws are written, activist Boniswa Seti said.
“It’s when I am dead that someone talks about a law,” Seti said. “It is when I am brutally attacked, left in a coma or disabled that someone actually has to speak about it.”
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Many of the violent crimes activists are speaking out against occurred in the victims’ homes, and were committed by members of their own communities, making it especially dangerous for lesbians to lobby other community members for support and acceptance. Lesbians who are speaking out do so while confronting the same men who tortured their murdered comrades. They speak with strength and hold on to hope for change, yet many say they live with a daily fear their name could be the next headline.
“You get tired of going to memorial services. You get tired of reading the newspaper,” Sanja Borman, an activist and women’s rights lawyer, said. “That’s why it’s important for us to support each other so that despair doesn’t take over us.”
In early August 2012, members of the South African LGBTI community met at a primary school in the township of Khayelitsha to participate in a conference on not only combating these crimes, but also fighting the hate that is so deeply sowed at the root of the violence. This conference, called “Isini Sam” [My Sexuality], was the group’s second annual, two-day educational workshop on LGBTI issues.
Khayelitsha is a massive, predominantly black South African township, the biggest one in Cape Town and estimated to be the fastest growing.
Residents living on the edges in informal settlements often go without running water or toilets; their houses are no more than a room constructed out of brightly painted storage containers or windowless shacks under tin roofs. Drug use is a major problem and crime is rampant.
“More people, more crime,” Ndira Vokwana said shaking her head. Nondi, as her friends call her, is a 30-year-old lesbian from the nearby town of Stellenbosch who went to school in Khayelithsa where a large portion of her family still lives.
Vokwana explains that last year in Khayelitsha over twenty men attacked and raped a woman who told them, “I’m not a tomboy. I’m a lesbian.” After they raped her, they killed her. Only four of the men who gang-raped her faced charges, Nondi said. The rest are free.
“It is so sad every year, every time, every month, a black lesbian is killed in Khayeltisha,” Velisa Jara another activist, known to her friends as Vee, said.
Nondi, Vee and over one hundred others came to the Isini Sam conference to meet and strategize on how to fight the hate and end the violence. They discussed how to better represent themselves and advocate as a cohesive group, how to combat stigmas and misconceptions, as well as how to better work with the police and community members.
“In South Africa we are free. But in our communities that we are living in, here in Khayelitsha, we are not free,” Jara said.
Still they speak out, but without any guarantee for their own safety.
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“Even though you want to be the change that you want to see, there is fear that if I do this, what are my chances of survival?” Seti said.
Non-profit organizations that sponsored the conference, like Free Gender, which is based in Khayelitsha, and the Triangle Project, are bringing people – gay, straight and any sexuality in-between – together to spread their message of acceptance, provide support, and to advocate for both gay and human rights in South Africa.
“We are trying to bring the community to also understand and to accept that we are humans and we are here and also that we are someone’s daughter or mother or sister,” Vokwana said.
They stress the similarities between all people. Many are quick to assert that while they are activists, their sexuality does not define them. They want to be seen as equals, as humans and accepted by their families, community, in the eyes of the law and by members of the police.
“For me, personally, it was never easy coming out because I am scared of what the community will think and how it will react but then at some point I had to sit down with myself. I spoke to the Lord and I said, ‘This is who I am and this is my life and this is how I have to take it forward,’” Vokwana said.
Woman after woman at the conference spoke out with determination, saying “I was raped and no one would help me” or “I was beaten and had nowhere to go.” Many said when they went to report the incident to police they were either laughed at or refused help. The police would say they brought it on themselves by “choosing” to be gay. Others said the police told them, “You just need to have sex with a man to no longer be a lesbian.” Some police even offered to show them.
“Whenever you are going to the same people who are supposed to be protecting you, you feel victimized more than you actually were before you came to see them,” Seti said.
When Aphiwe Ngqamnga, an activist at the conference, was beaten up by her girlfriend and went to the police station to report her case, the police weren’t interested in the details of the beating, she said. They only wanted to know the details of her sexual relationship with another woman.
“I had to explain who is the girl and who is the man and stuff like that. Because of the stigma around LGBTI, especially lesbians, you have to explain yourself every time you go. But I have no choice. I have to go to them,” Ngqamnga said.
Frustration was the most commonly shared sentiment at the conference. The attendees are frustrated over the lack of recognition of their rights, their lack of places to seek help or justice, and the inability to change the mindsets of their fellow South Africans.
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“It is frustrating. The fact that we’re not taken care of – we’re not. Rape is rape. Let’s say you get raped and they find out you’re also a lesbian. The case takes years and years, yet if it’s a heterosexual girl that’s it, then there is a case. Our body has been violated. I don’t see why it should be any different,” Vokwana said.
Ngebulana explained that it is ingrained in the mindset of many communities that her sexuality as a lesbian is a “curse.” Men believe, or at least justify the rape by saying “if they rape a lesbian, she will no longer be gay.” This leads to what some call “corrective rape.”
“It is because they do not understand…They say, ‘Why are you being like this? Why are you disgracing the family?’ I say, ‘What is the disgrace?’ I never chose to be the way I am but I am embracing it because that is the only way I can live my life,” Ngebulana said.
Those at the conference have chosen to speak out, but this choice comes with a price.
“We face emotional, physical, psychological abuse because everywhere you go there is a stigma around the LGBTI people,” Ngqamnga said. “It’s not supposed to be like that. We are supposed to be living in a free South Africa where we have gay rights. We do have them but they are not acknowledging that.”
Government officials have remained silent when asked to speak out against the attacks against lesbians. It’s politics, many activists explain. They do not want to upset their conservative, religious supporters.
“The number of lesbians who have been killed has been rising and the government is doing nothing about it,” Ngqamnga said.
But activists still meet, organize and fight.
At the conference attendees broke into small groups to discuss plans for lobbying, greater visibility, training for police and ways to talk with their community members, family members and friends. They sang and danced and celebrated knowing they were among friends, among comrades, and for a while, they were safe.
They brought different viewpoints, had their own hopes for the movement and opinions on how to get there, but they shared a common goal.
Written on a white easel, a unanimously agreed upon goal from one of the groups said, “Look at me beyond my sexuality. Look at me as a human being.”
Melissa Turley is a student at George Washington University who reported from South Africa on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
This post was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.