South African lesbians are abused by even those closest to them, a reality that contrasts with the high ideals of the country's constitution, Human Rights Watch said.
"Lesbians and transgender men live in constant fear of harassment as well as physical and sexual violence," the watchdog group said in a report.
The report, "We'll Show You You're a Woman," was based on interviews with 121 lesbians, bisexual women and transgender men in the impoverished black townships where the majority of South Africans live.
Their lives contrast with those of urban, wealthy, often white gay South Africans who have turned parts of some cities into liberal havens. Gay pride parades are held annually in Johannesburg and Cape Town, which reaches out to gay tourists from around the world. Next year, an international pageant for gay men will be held in Johannesburg.
Same-sex marriage is legal in South Africa and the country has among the most liberal laws on sexual orientation on the continent. But cultural attitudes don't always match the constitution approved in 1996 by lawmakers determined to show they were more progressive then their apartheid predecessors.
One woman told Human Rights Watch of a series of rapes by her cousin, her coach and her pastor. Another said a female cousin spiked her drink so that the cousin's boyfriend could rape her. A third said that after a rape. "I really hated myself."
Raping a lesbian, HRW researchers found, can make a man a township hero. Attackers boast publicly of their crimes and declare to their victims, "We'll show you you're a woman," the report said. Such attacks are known as "corrective rapes" in South Africa.
Lesbians and others who don't fit the norm respond by avoiding being alone in public, trying not to attract men's attention, and hiding their sexual orientation, the report said.
Large program needed
Human Rights Watch called on South Africa's government to act against the attackers. At a news conference in Johannesburg, Dipika Nath, the lead researcher on the report, acknowledged that addressing the crimes would have a limited effect.
"What we really need is a sustained, large program" that embraces education in schools and engages with religious leaders, she said.
Contempt for homosexuals has led to anti-gay legal measures elsewhere in Africa. Last week, Nigeria's Senate voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize gay marriage, gay advocacy groups and same-sex public displays of affection. Two years ago, Ugandan legislators introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians, though it has yet to become law.
(Sapa, December 2011)