A new 93-page report by Human Rights Watch details how, despite constitutional protections, black lesbians and trans men face an “overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence” in South Africa.
The new report, titled “‘We’ll Show You You’re a Woman’: Violence and Discrimination Against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men,” is the product of 120 interviews conducted in six provinces across South Africa. Human Rights Watch found that lesbians and trans men report pervasive discrimination and threats of violence in general society. Those interviewed also say they believe that anti-LGBT attitudes persist among elected officials and local law enforcement, leading to a chilling effect on constitutional guarantees of protection.
“The threat of violence that dominates the lives of lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men, particularly in poorer and non-urban areas, beggars belief,” said Dipika Nath, researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch. “South Africa, at the forefront of the fight for legal equality on LGBT issues internationally, is desperately failing lesbian and transgender people in their everyday lives at home.”
The report reveals widespread ignorance about lesbians and transgender men and deep-rooted prejudice against gender and sexual non-conformity. Almost all of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they lived in fear of sexual assault.
“He had seen my lesbian friends coming home and he talked about how we all dress like men,” 22-year-old Dumisani (pseudonym) told Human Rights Watch. “He dragged me to the bushes. There was no one around. He told me to take off my pants. I was refusing but he was beating me. He raped me until it was late at night. … I saw the guy after that, too. A week later I heard he had raped another girl. He was arrested but he came out three days later and beat her up so badly, she was in hospital for three weeks. I was so scared.”
The report details a number of horrifying incidents. Particularly startling are those reported by young LGBT-identifying citizens who say they have faced emotional and physical abuse from teachers over their perceived or actual orientation or gender identity. One girl, a 13-year-old known as Tanesha, reported:
“My mother came to school to complain. She spoke to the principal about what had happened, about [another student] calling me a stabane [literally a person with two sexual organs and a derogatory for homosexual]. She didn’t tell him I’m a lesbian. The principal said, ‘There’s no such thing as a stabane. God didn’t make stabane. Stabane won’t go to heaven.’ The teachers also say these things. One lady teacher said if she gave birth to a stabane, she would kill it. She tried to chase me from the class because she didn’t want to teach a stabane.”
The report also documents that lesbians and trans men continue to feel they can not approach the police over incidents of violence and discrimination because they fear they will encounter even more prejudice from law enforcement officials. A woman known as Nombeko reported:
“When you’re a lesbian… you can’t go to the police. There’s a lesbian older than me who was raped. Her case was not taken seriously. I’ll get raped because I’m a lesbian. It makes me want to stay closeted. … My girlfriend stays alone; everyone knows this. For sure, [the guys in the neighborhood] are planning something. It’s just that the day hasn’t come yet.”
Human Rights Watch identifies a number of action points to try and remedy these serious human rights issues. Suggestions include that the South African Police Service should specifically track homophobic and transphobic crime data; that the National Prosecuting Authority should ensure that all crimes including those dealing with cases of sexual and physical violence against women and transgender people should be brought to trial in a timely way and should be met by prosecutors with the same level of attention as other offenses; and that the Department of Education should establish a system to monitor effective implementation of non-discrimination policies. The report suggests a toll free helpline for students to report discrimination and abuse by teachers and school authorities.
Human Rights Watch stresses that the South African government’s responsibility to its LGBT citizens does not end with the passing of LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws and, indeed, that this is only a starting point for action to safeguard a right to life free from discrimination and violence.
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