“Lesbians and transgender men live in constant fear of harassment as well as physical and sexual violence,” the watchdog group said in a report released Monday.
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.
Human Rights Watch called on South Africa’s government to act against the attackers. At a news conference in Johannesburg on Monday, 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.
Corlia Kok, a high-ranking Department of Justice official said South Africans should rally to defend their constitution.
“I have my Bible and I have got the constitution in my handbag,” she said, holding up a pocket-sized copy of national charter to demonstrate the importance she placed on the document. Kok participated in a panel discussion organized for the report by Human Rights Watch on Monday.
Kok chairs a task force formed earlier this year to bring together prosecutors, police and others to address crimes against homosexuals and others who do not fit traditional sexual identities. Kok said the government was taking the problem seriously, but acknowledged her task force does not yet have its own budget and was diverting funds from other government projects and seeking help from foreign donors.
“It can’t be government alone,” she said. “We all need to say that this is a challenge that is facing every one of us.”
Nomboniso Gasa, a South African women’s rights activist, said the constitution was written by leaders who dared “to imagine a different society,” and that South Africa today was in need of such leadership in the face of conservative traditional leaders and fundamentalist Christians.
“We are very far from the society we wanted to build,” said Gasa, who spoke on Monday’s panel. “Our society is trying to sanctify heterosexuality as the only form of sexual being. We are told that to be non-heterosexual is to be non-African.”
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.
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