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Gay, lesbian and transgender people face violence in South Africa

December 5, 2011 |  9:56 am

South africa

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Lesbian, gay and transgender people face entrenched discrimination, violence and hatred in South Africa, particularly women who do not behave the way this society expects them to, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

"They may be thrown out of home; ridiculed and abused at school; harassed, insulted, and beaten on the streets, in church, and at work; and threatened by neighbors and strangers," says the report, "We'll Show You You're A Woman," released Monday. "The abuse they face may be verbal, physical, or sexual, and may even result in murder."

The report cites the case of a woman it identifies as Boipelo, born in Pietermatizburg, eastern South Africa. Boipelo (not her real name) was brought up by her grandmother and harassed by her male cousin, who lived with the family and accused her of acting like a boy, particularly when she refused to carry out chores for him.

Once, when Boipelo and her younger sisters were alone at home with the cousin, he raped her repeatedly. “I told my mum and my grandma when they returned. It was dealt with as a family matter. We were now supposed to get along,” Boipelo said. Her mother knew the cousin had HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, but did not tell Boipelo, who was infected by him.

Later in life, she was raped and beaten by her soccer coach, who wanted to "convert" her and marry her. She became pregnant and had a child. Some years later, a local pastor who wanted to show her “what it is like to have a man” tried to seduce her.

"He said he’s going to show me I’m not a man, I’m a woman," she said. "He raped me that day."

The report comes after a series of slayings of lesbian woman in South African townships, but also fits a pattern of homophobia across much of the continent, where gays are often jailed, beaten or killed. Uganda's parliament toyed with the idea of bringing in the death penalty for homosexuality, but backed away, while Nigeria's Senate recently passed a law outlawing same-sex marriage.

Many of the continent's political leaders have called homosexuality un-African, while conservative church leaders condemn it as un-Christian.

South Africa's constitution stands out for its guarantees of equality for all citizens, and same-sex marriage is legal. But those guarantees aren't much help for working class or unemployed gay people, who were more vulnerable to violence, according to the report.

"Over the past decade, activists in South Africa have recorded and analyzed dozens of incidents of sexual and physical violence against lesbians and transgender men, including rape and murder," the report says. "For those who are socially and economically vulnerable, the picture is often grim. Lack of access to such things as secure housing and transport options greatly increases people’s vulnerability to violence. 

"Many of the 121 people we interviewed for this report told us that rigid social and cultural norms for appropriate feminine and masculine behavior resulted in them living a life of fear and self-policing, sometimes impeding their ability to finish school or get and keep a job, and exposing them to rejection and ridicule in public spaces and at home."

Victims who report violence or rape to police are often rebuffed, the report says.

"Social attitudes lag: recent social surveys demonstrate a wide gap between the ideals of the constitution and public attitudes toward such individuals," the report says. "And constitutional protections are greatly weakened by the state’s failure to adequately enforce them."


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-- Robyn Dixon

Photo: Two men dance at a predominantly gay tavern in Kwa Thema township in South Africa. Credit: Denis Farrell / Associated Press