Rape continues to plague our society – it is estimated that approximately 500 000 women are raped in South Africa each year. Shadowed within this horrific and overwhelming statistic is the fact that black lesbian South Africans, particularly those living in our township areas, are particularly vulnerable to being raped. Simply because of their sexual orientation.
The ANCWL has recently called this practice 'senseless'.
Referred to as 'curative' or 'corrective' rape, such attacks are based on the belief by many men that a lesbian woman can be 'cured' of her sexual orientation and made 'straight' by being raped. Blatantly patriarchal, the belief is fed by the assumption that a lesbian's sexual orientation is due to her not having previously experienced a satisfying sexual encounter with a man.
It also suggests that lesbianism is a threat to male dominance and power, a power that is often expressed sexually. Patriarchy implies that men have the potential capacity to penetrate and when this capacity is resisted, for example by a woman assuming a lesbian identity, men are challenged to exert their sexual penetrative power. Curative rape is therefor often particularly violent. At least 10 black lesbians have been murdered since 2006.
Mob summoned by a woman
During February 2006, two young lesbian women were walking in Guguletu when they were accused of being 'tom boys' by a straight woman who then went to summon a group of male friends. A mob of twenty young men later confronted the two lesbians and chased them through the streets of Guguletu before stoning 19-year old Zoliswa Nkonyana and finally beating her to death with a golf club. Her friend, who was still in school, managed to escape and had to be placed in hiding.
I remember that on the day of Zoliswa's murder I was approached by a national Sunday newspaper on another matter and I informed them of the incident. They agreed to splash it onto the front page that coming Sunday and an article was arranged for their journalist, including access to the survivor and Zoliswa's bereaved mother who wanted the world to know about the reasons for her daughter's murder. The story was relegated into the inner pages, was relatively short and – unbelievably – included a photo of Zoliswa with two of her lesbian friends who were thereby placed at high risk of attack as well. The local media only picked up on the story after being bombarded by gay rights groups.
During July 2007 two lesbians, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa, were repeatedly raped and murdered in Soweto. Eudy Simelane, a 31-year woman who was known to be a lesbian by the community, was gang-raped and murdered in Kwa-Themba during April this year. Many are afraid to venture out at night and most prefer to move around in groups. “You are always scared, you are always on the lookout because an attack can come from anywhere”, a lesbian friend living in Khayelitsha told me. “If you see a group of men on the street you become very scared. This thing (rape) happens too often but many of us prefer not to report it. We are very scared.”
Lesbian women living in townships experience taunting and verbal sexual assault by men on an ongoing basis. “You just try to ignore it, but its difficult”, my friend said. “It gets you down. It’s humiliating”.
There are no known patterns associated with violent attacks on black lesbians – they occur in homes, on streets, at social spaces, at taxi ranks and inside taxis, both during the day and at night. Alcohol and substance abuse may be precipitating factors, and it has been suggested that attacks could be more prevalent over weekends or at month end when men have received their pay and are more likely to drink excessively. Women of diverse ages are targeted, and many lesbians who are out and are activists for social change could be at particular risk.
According to Marlow Valentine of Triangle Project, “This is still something that only happens to black lesbian and bisexual women. LGBTI persons living in urban and resourced communities are still oblivious about what is happening. Many are complacent because we have the rights, constitution and legislation – so apathy and disinterest still exists. Class, privilege, status, race and gender disparities all play a huge role in whether an issue affects one or not”.
Victims unlikely to report attacks
Research indicates that lesbians are often unlikely to report being raped to the SAPS. Many experience the police as homoprejudiced whilst others believe the police aren't willing to take them seriously. “These policemen are often the ones making insulting comments to us, they are also in the community and many of them are homophobic”, my friend explains. “Now he's in a uniform and I must go tell him I was raped because I'm a lesbian?” Invariably the rapist isn't arrested immediately and rape survivors thus fear for their lives if word gets out that they're reporting the rape to the SAPS.
There are no official statistics reflecting the frequency of curative rape. South Africa doesn't have legislation related to hate crimes – crimes committed because of the perpetrator's prejudice against the victim's race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or national origin – and there are scant data related to such crimes.
Like xenophobia, these attacks are hate crimes
During May 2008 the world was shocked by large-scale hate crimes against immigrants. Locals turned against people from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and elsewhere. In some instances people turned against their neighbours in a rampage that culminated in wide-spread destruction of property, rape, murder and the displacement of thousands of people. Our collective psyche was shamed. In-depth analysis of the situation will no doubt emerge with time, but already there's a lesson to be learnt by the gay community – the apparent ease with which people can turn on others due to the blinding power of prejudice.
I experienced an uncomfortable chill when I heard a local man, interviewed on television about why he was participating in an attack on foreigners, say: “They steal our women away from us”. This exact phrase was used by a local man justifying attacks on lesbians when interviewed during 2007.
I was also reminded of the many gay men who have literally fled to South Africa from countries as far afield as Somalia because their lives were in danger in their own homoprejudiced countries. I remember a young Somalian who found his way to Cape Town after his boyfriend was murdered and mobs set out to look for him too – I wonder how he's fared during the xenophobic mayhem.
Homosexuality is seen by the majority of South Africans as being unChristian, unAfrican and as an affront to black culture and traditional values. Fundamentalists accuse us of undermining family and social values. Prominent politicians have made blatantly homoprejudiced statements. We're seen by many as flamboyant sexual deviants and perverts. Homoprejudice, based on myths and stereotypes, is alive and well and flourishes in our schools and homes, at our workplaces, within the health and judicial systems and – especially – religious institutions. It is self-perpetuating and even though some of us may not interface with or experience it directly, it is always present.No minority group can afford to be complacent about our rights; our vulnerability requires that the gay community should be at the forefront of human rights issues in South Africa.
By Glenn de Swardt - Before being updated, this article first appeared in The Pink Tongue in June 2008