Murder of young lesbian sparks homophobia concerns

As gays and lesbians become more visible in South African townships, they are increasingly becoming targets of homophobia, according to rights activists. The organisations were reacting to reports at the weekend of the murder of a young lesbian in a township in Cape Town.

"I have recorded 50 rape cases, dating back 10 years, involving black lesbians in townships," said Zanele Muholi, a community relations officer with the NGO, Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW). Muholi, a lesbian, who was also abused growing up in a township, co-founded FEW in 2002, to provide a support network for black gay women.

Two weeks ago Zoliswa Nkonyana, 19, was reportedly stabbed and stoned to death by a mob of young people in Khayelitsha. While police are still investigating the cause of the murder, the hearsay evidence points to homophobia, according to the Cape Town-based Triangle Project, an NGO that provides support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The NGO has been counselling Nkonyana's family.

Sexual orientation does not in itself make the LGBT community targets of abuse, according to Dawn Betteridge, the director of Triangle Project. "The problem largely is that of patriarchy," she added. By adopting the clothing, behaviour typical of a 'butch lesbian' or the 'effeminate male', the LGBT community is perceived as a threat to masculine dominance.

"Lesbians who mimic men are seen to be challenging male superiority. Rape and violence against lesbians is common ... the men who perpetrate such crimes see rape as curative and as an attempt to show women their place in society," said Betteridge.

Historically, the LGBT community in townships maintained a low-profile. "It is being both black and gay [which is problematic]," said Muholi.

In an attempt to build the lesbian community's self-esteem, FEW runs 'The Rose has Thorns', campaign against hate crimes directed at black lesbians, particularly those living in townships.

The campaign includes community interventions involving public education workshops and self-defence training for the women at risk in the Gauteng province. Skills like photography, computer basics and sports training are provided to open up employment opportunities for the black lesbian community.

Ironically, South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world.

Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of same sex marriages, making the country among a handful in the world to do so. "But the fact that we have one of the most advanced constitutions has had little impact on mindsets in townships. Members of our community are celebrating the constitution, but it is very different in the society," said Muholi.

Educating and sensitising wider society poses a major challenge. "They should hold workshops on the constitution in all the townships - people are not aware of our rights and needs," said Muholi.