December 6, 2011

Verbal, Physical, and Sexual Abuse: A Failure of Protection

Lesbians, bisexual women, transgender men, and other female-born gender non-conforming people face a range of violence and discrimination in their daily lives from neighbors, relatives, friends, and strangers. This section details that abuse.

First, it examines common forms of verbal abuse against lesbians and transgender men, and the similarities and differences between the abuse targeted at butch lesbians, transgender men, and feminine-presenting lesbians and bisexual women.

Next, it provides detailed accounts of physical attacks against lesbians and transgender men, drawing out differences on the basis of gender expression. It then sets forth cases of sexual violence against butch and femme lesbians and transgender men, noting patterns of sexual assault, such as when men study the movements and habits of gender non-conforming people, lesbians, or transgender men before cornering them; instances of men turning on lesbian friends with no warning; and situations where men pretend to be gay to gain the confidence of lesbians.

Verbal Abuse, Ridicule, Harassment, and Intimidation

Almost all Human Rights Watch interviewees said they had been verbally abused, ridiculed, or harassed at some point in their life—or, for a significant number of people, throughout their lives—because of their gender expression and presumed or known sexual orientation.

Verbal abuse and harassment leads lesbians and transgender men to be fearful and cautious as it constantly sends a message that people in their communities dislike them. Left unchecked, such antipathy circulates and reinforces prejudices among and within communities.  Verbal abuse and harassment that people face due to their gender expression and/or sexual orientation can create or enhance negative self-image, shape public opinion, instill fear and shame in people, and inhibit their ability to access public space and seek redress or justice. It also creates and reinforces the climate of impunity within which, as the report demonstrates, violence can escalate from verbal harassment and abuse to physical and sexual attacks.

Almost all the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that male strangers and acquaintances subjected them to frequent name-calling and other forms of non-physical abuse, against which they rarely had recourse or defense.

Nontle, 34, grew up dating boys, but since 2005, when she had a child, has dated women. At the time of our interview with her she had a feminine-presenting girlfriend, although Nontle herself is butch.  She is verbally harassed and abused when she is with her girlfriend. Nontle said,

We get comments: “Demonic people, satanic [people], we’re going to kill you, stab you”…. These things happen all the time. Guys will follow us if we are going to get a taxi. They try to grab my girlfriend. They say they will stab us, [because] we are taking their girlfriends.

People passing by in taxis yell at Nontle and even strangers make comments regularly. “When I’m dressed more butch and I enter a shop, it happens all the time,” Nontle said.[44]

Naledi, 24, is interrogated about her appearance every day.

People say, “Why look like a boy when you are a girl. God didn’t make women and women; he made Adam and Eve.” Guys drinking on the street say these things. I keep walking; don’t say anything.[45]

Nonyameko, 28, has often been told she is violating tradition.

People would say, “It’s not our tradition to be like this. You should be with men. At this age, why don’t you have children? Why are you not with a man?”[46]

Butch lesbians and transgender men face a particular brand of abuse that reinforces the constant threat of physical and sexual violence against them.  Their masculine gender expression means that they are immediately identified as “lesbian” and their mere presence in a public space can elicit ridicule and abuse.

Lee, 21, is very boyish and faces verbal abuse and threats almost daily from strangers and acquaintances alike.

Stabane [lit. a person with two sexual organs; derogatory for homosexual] is my nickname. Every day I get called the name…. They say, “Where’s the snake, where’s the snake?[47] If you take my girlfriend, I’m going to do to you what you do to them”.… When I’m out with my girlfriend, guys say to her, “Aren’t we satisfying you? Why do you just want to get fingers? Why are you going out with a stabane?”[48]

Nosizwe, 25, was raped by four men who were initially confused and then angered by Nosizwe’s masculine gender expression. Nosizwe’s appearance also means unrelenting verbal harassment.

People ask me if I’m a man or a woman. I ignore them. If I listen to them, I’ll go mad. People say to me, “You’re 25, what type of person are you? You act like a man. Why don’t you be a woman?” All my life I have heard these things.[49]

Nbushe has been harassed by the same group of men every day, and is aware that the malice in the abuse can take physical forms.

To be called stabane, it’s an everyday thing. I don’t even think about it. Or people say to me when I’m walking with my girlfriend, “Who’s the boy?” or “Who’s the man?” The same guys make the comments day after day. I don’t feel safe. I don’t want to meet them at night.

For most butch lesbians and transgender men, such experience of verbal harassment is so normalized they sometimes claim to not see it as abuse. Mosa, 23, said:

I have never been verbally abused…. When I go to the mall, I get called names—stabane—or guys call us “men.” When I am walking with my girlfriend, guys hit on us, even on us butches, guys who hang around the corners.[50]

But not everyone is unaffected by the abuse. Nthanda, 19, speaks of the constant threat and abuse.

Taxi drivers, guys on the road, think I’m trying to take their girlfriend. Taxi drivers and conductors will shout at me. They try to beat me up.… By my actions and by word of mouth, people know I’m a lesbian. Guys come up to me and ask if I’m a lesbian. [People say that] I need a man to teach me; if I had a man, I would learn to respect culture. Women say I’m a shame to women as a whole.[51]

Two of Kefilwe’s friends were beaten and raped by a gang of men because they were butch lesbians. The survivors saw the men who had raped them around in the neighborhood frequently after the assault. The rapists told Kefilwe’s friend,

Those lesbians are too tsatsaragh—forward; proud of themselves. They don’t greet the guys. Whatever we did, we are going to do again. We will fix them.[52]

Men who rape lesbians are known not only to boast of the criminal acts in public, but some assert their intent to rape again because, as they say, lesbians do not treat “the guys” with due respect. Raping a lesbian can make men “heroes” in their communities and fuel a climate in which more sexual assault may occur. Zebo’s close friend, also a lesbian, was brutally gang raped in late 2008 and left for dead by some men in her neighborhood. Zebo said, “The guys around treat those guys [the rapists] like heroes. They applaud them … [they] are free and threaten to repeat what they did to [my friend] and do the same to every lesbian.”[53]

Incessant verbal abuse and threats create a climate of intense surveillance and fear. Masego, 26, said:

What if one day someone decides to show me how they think a woman should be treated? It isn’t only guys who say things. Sometimes, straight women say, “Woman, you don’t know what you’re missing.” It may be a stranger or someone I know. It’s hard to tell if they’re joking or being serious. They talk sometimes as if you are not a human being. I feel insulted and afraid.[54]

Zebo is immediately and easily read as a lesbian in her community. A butch lesbian friend of hers was brutally raped and beaten by some men in the neighborhood and left for dead, her body hung on a barbed wire fence. Zebo lives alone, in a house where the toilet is in the compound, outside the house.

Some guys in the neighborhood said [to me] they would lie on top of my roof and catch me as I go to the toilet and rape me inside my house. They say it often.… I go to a tavern with a friend. Guys comment on our dress style, harass us, [and] we leave.… I know the guys who threaten me. After what happened to [my friend], I got threats that I was next. … They say, “It is not finished, it’s the beginning.”[55]

Sometimes, the verbal abuse is so threatening it prompts people to leave home. Nthanda said:

In 2006, guys from the neighborhood [in Durban, where Nthanda used to live] were hanging around. One guy would always say that if I had a man I would be a real woman. He said he would teach me, show me, teach me morality and respect. This happened for six months, every day.… My mum told me to let it go. I left for Johannesburg.[56]

Katlego’s Story

Growing up, Katlego, 21, was sometimes femme, sometimes boyish. Today everyone knows she is a lesbian because of the way she dresses and speaks.  Neighbors tell her, “You were a good girl, then what happened? What went wrong?” Men say, “All you need is a good dick and you’ll be okay. How can your mum allow this?”

Every time, I went out they would say this. I used to just stay at home. To my girlfriend, they say, “What do you see in this one? What do you want from this one because she doesn’t have a dick?”

Some of the men who issue the threats are Katlego’s peers, people she grew up with, others are older. One man warned her, “If I bump into you at night, I’ll rape you so you can be straight again.” Katlego said:

I just don’t say anything. Sometimes, when I’m walking, he will grab my hand and not let me pass. Whenever I meet him in the street he says this to me. I’ve never told anyone.… Sometimes, I feel like I can cry or scream…. He would grab me and say, “Today you’ll go with me.” He would hold me tight and even try to kiss me. He’s strong. I would say, “I’ll tell my dad,” and he’ll say he doesn’t care.

Katlego has reason to be fearful; her butch lesbian friend was raped by young men she once considered to be friends. Katlego knows the rapists and sees them around.

They raped her in her room. They pretended to be her friends and that’s how they got her.… They say to her, “Don’t pretend you’re a boy, because we did sleep with you.”

When Katlego tried to help her friend, a long-time male friend said to her, “If I had a crew of guys, I would take you out of your house and take you to [a busy part of the township] and rape you and kill you.” Katlego stays at home to avoid “these things.” 

The men who raped Katlego’s friend did not hide or deny what they did; instead, they flaunted their crimes, arguably serving as role models for other men.

Human Rights Watch interview with Katlego (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 13, 2010.

Femme lesbians, who are often read as heterosexual by strangers, are subject to the same kinds and levels of sexual harassment as directed at women in general; however, they often experience an added dimension.  Nkosazana said:

Being a woman you get harassed all the time, especially if they know you’re a lesbian. They say, “We can show you what a real man can do, instead of fingers and tongue. I’ll show you what a real man is.”[57]

The gender-conforming appearance of feminine-presenting lesbians may mean that they are only “outed” when they are in the company of, or appear to be romantically involved with, a butch lesbian or transgender man. Once a femme lesbian has been outed, the abuse she gets may well be the same as experienced by butch lesbians. According to Denise, 21:

They say I have a snake. I don’t go out of home late now because [the men in the neighborhood] keep promising to rape me.… I don’t know them but I know they are serious.… The guys who make the comments, they warn other women not to associate with me.[58]

Vicki gets “constant verbal abuse” at taxi ranks.

They say, “How are you getting satisfied with finger and tongue? You need a penis.” One time a guy took out his private parts and said, “This is what you need.”[59]

Dorothy is threatened almost every time she goes out.

Usually… guys try to propose to you if you’re walking. [They say,] “Come here. You are a girl, you can’t fuck.” They see you’re a lesbian … [but they say,] “You won’t be a guy. You’re scared of penis…. You’re running away but this is something you have to do.”

Physical Assault

Several interviewees—mostly but not exclusively butch lesbians and transgender men—had been physical assaulted due to their gender expression and sexual orientation. They sometimes fought back when attacked to defend themselves, their friends, and their partners.

Most people who are called names or abused do not respond because they know it could result in a fight. Tau, 16, was attacked near a carwash as she walked with three friends. A man called them moffies [derogatory for gay men] and stabane. When Tau challenged him, he pushed and beat her. Later that day, Tau went to the man’s house with her brother to confront him. The man said, “I beat her because she is trying to be a boy; she is not a boy.”[60]

Vinny was beaten up by her girlfriend’s family. In November 2008 some of her friends had appeared on television and openly said they were lesbians. As a result, Vinny was outed in the community because she was often seen spending time with them.

Around 7:00 p.m. that night, [my girlfriend’s] mother, brother, other people from her community came to my house with sticks and stones. My girlfriend was covered in blood. They came inside. Her mother told the boys to hold me, and they beat me a lot. They broke my left arm. Other community members came when they heard the sound, and I escaped.… I had a cast for a month.[61]

Montsho tries to pick her fights based on whether she can avoid extensive injury.

When [my girlfriend and I] are walking together, guys who know me, try to propose to her.… Last time, I lost a tooth. Sometimes there are two guys, sometimes just one. I fight with them then.[62]

People have even been attacked in their homes. One night in May 2008 five armed men broke into Kaya’s house where she lived with her mother. The 26-year-old said:

They took my mum to one room and tied her up. Three of them took me into another room. [They were saying,] “So you’re a man? You think you’re a man?” … They were beating me up, hitting me on the head and shoulders with a gun. They almost raped me… then something happened and they decided to leave. I’m not sure what happened.… I felt like it was my fault somehow. You know, you’ll be a target by dressing like this.[63]

Femme lesbians sometimes face direct attacks from men they have left, rejected, or whose advances they spurn. Gloria was attacked by a man she turned down. “Everyone knows I’m a lesbian from the way I dress. One guy proposed; he did it to provoke me. I told him ‘no’ and he tried to beat me.”[64]

Abigail, 37, and her butch girlfriend often found themselves involved in fights.

One time my girlfriend and I were in a bar. A guy wanted to talk to me…. I was ignoring him. He came [over] and said, “Can’t you see I’m calling you?” He wanted to talk to me in private. [My girlfriend] intervened. He started yelling at her and telling her to mind her own business. She said I was her business. He started slapping us. Other people tried to intervene and we got away.[65]

Physical assaults are sometimes accompanied by sexual violence. Oyama was walking with her girlfriend one evening in March 2009.

It was quiet; we were walking on the road. Four guys came to us and asked how I can love a girl when I’m a girl myself. The guys beat me up. One of the guys took my girlfriend away and raped her. They were kicking me in the chest with their feet. Three guys were beating me. It felt like a long time. My ribs were paining, they felt broken, I couldn’t breathe. When they were finished I could stand up and walk, but it was painful. I didn’t know the guys. The one who took my girlfriend away, I had seen him near my girlfriend’s house.… I couldn’t identify [the others]. I broke up with my girlfriend two weeks ago.[66]

Sexual Violence

Research suggests that women in heterosexual relationships who are sexually assaulted are often attacked by their partners, ex-partners, or by family members and other acquaintances in their homes or in neighbors’ homes; about a third are attacked by strangers.[67]  In contrast, our research indicates that lesbians and transgender men are most often attacked by strangers, recent acquaintances, and sometimes by friends; most often, the attacks occur in isolated public places or in private spaces to which they are taken against their will.

At 15, in 2000, Nosizwe, who presents as masculine, was “wearing clothes like a boy. I played harder than the boys.” One Saturday night, when returning alone from a school sports trip, Nosizwe was accosted by a group of four strange men.

When I passed them, they asked if I was a girl. I said, “no.” “Are you a boy?” I said, “yes.” I passed them, then, one of them said, “This is a girl. Let me show you it’s a girl.” They came after me, grabbed me; started hitting me…. They raped me—three or two or all of them, I don’t remember. I woke up in the morning. My clothes were torn. There was blood. I was in pieces.
I felt like I’m not a human being. I didn’t leave home for days. I thought … it will happen again.[68]

The rape changed Nosizwe’s life. Nosizwe got pregnant and her mother is raising the child.

Farai, 32, from Lusikisiki, a semi-urban area in the Eastern Cape, was also attacked because of her gender expression—specifically, she says, because of how she dressed. In 2000, when she was 22, Farai was gang raped while out jogging.

One guy came to talk to me. I didn’t want to talk to him and he started acting very funny and we [started] fighting. He slapped me. Another guy came, I knew [him]; he was [known in Lusikisiki as] a rapist and a thief. I was fighting hard by this time. I don’t know where the third and fourth guys came from. They were saying they will teach me how to behave as a woman. They said I should not be tough. They were saying, “Who do you think you are?” I was fighting all of them and still I was winning. But the fifth guy ... that’s when they get me. He came from behind and hit me on the back. That’s when I fell down, and I think I passed out.
A guy who was passing found me like that hours later and took me home. I had a severe headache for four days … I thought I was bleeding. I got home and bathed and the feeling didn’t leave me. I bathed again. Then I discovered I wasn’t bleeding. They had poured petrol on me. … I didn’t tell anyone because I thought no one would believe me. And I thought I would forget.[69]

Other interviewees also described being sexually assaulted, sometimes multiple times, by strangers and acquaintances. Onalenna, who lives in Tzaneen in Limpopo province, was first raped in 1994, aged 15, by her soccer coach; the second time was in 1996, when three men, calling her monnamusadi(“man-woman”) dragged her and her girlfriend into bushes as they walked one evening in Polokwane, a nearby town. She was raped a third time in April 1999, also in Polokwane, by men who had watched her movements and planned the attack in order to “teach” her a lesson and transform her into a “real woman.”[70]

The risk of attack in bars and public spaces often compels lesbians and transgender men to adapt their lifestyle and the ways in which they socialize; often, they choose to drink and socialize in the relative safety of their homes. But even private homes are not always safe. In the early hours of the morning on February 23, 2008, Frances was asleep in her house in Kabokweni, a town close to Nelspruit in Mpumalanga province, when two men—one of whom she recognized by his voice as someone who had repeatedly asked her why she lived “like a guy”—broke into the house. The man whom she recognized forced her out of the house at knifepoint, taking her about 300 meters away to a nearby river, where he stabbed her in the head and raped her for an hour and a half. A neighbor later told Frances that the attacker had told him he would teach her “not to be a man.”[71]

Dumisani’s Story

Dumisani has been raped more than once, both by strangers and by a casual acquaintance who had studied her movements.

On 12 September, 2005 at 6:00 p.m., Dumisani—then 17—was walking near her house in Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, one of South Africa’s largest townships, when a man began talking to her.

…the guy asked if I was in love with him. I didn’t know what he was saying. I just said “no” and tried to leave but he blocked me. It was dark now. I was crying and asking him to leave me alone. He started beating me. He pulled out a knife. I ran but I fell down and he got me.
He knew things about me. He knew where I lived and when I came home, and who came to my house, what friends I had. He had seen my lesbian friends coming home and he talked about how we all dress like men.

He dragged her to the bushes, beat, and raped her until late at night; he then said he would walk her home. Dumisani was afraid to go to police because the rapist lived nearby, had clearly watched her closely, and was known locally to be dangerous. A schoolteacher who noticed there was something wrong took Dumisani to the police, for an HIV test, and to see if she was pregnant. She was thankful to learn that she was not pregnant but the police did not arrest the man even though she identified him to them, and she later saw him in the area.

I really hated myself then…. Even to this day, I can’t move on. I can’t forget. When guys come to talk to me, it reminds me of what happened. Something clicks and I get angry. I’ve got this anger in me. I get so stressed that I fall sick…. I don’t want to be around people, I just want to drink to forget everything.

But more was to come. One Friday evening in October 2009 Dumisani was returning from college in East London, and walked past a club. Two men followed her and dragged to her to nearby bushes:

[They] took turns on me. I was begging them to leave me. I recognized the voice of one of them. They were beating me. I struggled and struggled. Everything came to a pause…. Everything stopped for me.
I didn’t know what to do. There are lots of those guys around, they are connected. I know [that] those guys know me. They wanted to do this to a butch lesbian. When they were raping me, one guy said, “You think you’re so tough, you think you’re guys, you lesbian shit.” If I brought a case, sure, they might get arrested but they [would] have guys outside and they would get me. I know they’ll get me.

Dumisani had an abortion at the end of 2009 and takes regular HIV tests.

Human Rights Watch interview with Dumisani (pseudonym), East London, June 28, 2010.

All too often, like Dumisani, rape survivors face the trauma of seeing their attackers at large after the attack; this also serves to intimidate the survivors and erode their already fragile confidence in the police and the criminal justice system. This problem is a common one, not limited to the rape of lesbians.

Mosa was raped by a neighbor in 2003 when living in Klerksdorp, also known as Matlosana, some 125 miles southwest of Johannesburg in Gauteng province. After the rape, the man said: “Remember, even if you talk, I will go to jail, that’s fine, but I will get people to kill you, and the case will just disappear.” Terrified, Mosa told her mother what had happened three days later, and the two went to the Kanana police station to file a rape charge. The rapist was arrested but freed on bail while Mosa was hospitalized for an operation related to injuries she sustained during the rape. He started intimidating her when she returned home. Mosa got a protection order from the police.

The case stagnated and feeling unsafe living so close to the rapist, Mosa and her mother moved to Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. The police informed her that she would have to testify in Gauteng. In mid-2004 she learned she was HIV positive. Sometime in 2005, while she was still in the Eastern Cape, the investigating officer called her and told her she needed to testify in court in Gauteng the next day. Strapped for money, Mosa was unable to travel the 400 miles (about 700 kilometers) at a day’s notice; she does not know what, if anything, happened to the case because the police did not contact her again and she gave up.[72]

As in Mosa’s case, the psychological and physical effects of such attacks can endure. Saden, 19, who was 16 when friends raped her in 2007 in a village in Limpopo province, also found out that the assault had left her HIV positive. The police refused to register a case of rape when Saden approached them because of her gender expression; they would not believe that Saden was not a man and instead harassed and ridiculed her about her physical appearance. She is currently on anti-retroviral therapy.[73]

Lee, who was out as lesbian and raped by eight men at a party in 2006, stopped trusting people after the attack and began drinking heavily. She became pregnant due to the rape.

I wanted an abortion. I went to a private hospital. The counselor said they wanted to ask me two questions. “One, can you live with yourself knowing you killed a baby? Two, what will you think every time you see a baby?” I wanted to just kill the baby…. It was in December 2006 [that] I went for counseling. By the time I went to the hospital it was four months later. There was no point in thinking about [an abortion]. My mother takes care of the baby.[74]

Carol, 35, was betrayed by a female cousin when she was 19. Carol has always been very butch and her cousin did not approve of Carol’s sexual orientation. “She would say to me, ‘Why are you making yourself a boy,’” Carol said. Carol’s cousin invited her to a party and insisted that she drink. Carol found out later that her cousin spiked her beer that night and that her cousin’s boyfriend raped Carol while she was unconscious.

I woke up the next morning in another room, naked, there was blood all over me. There was money under the pillow. I was crying. My big sis came home and I told her something had happened. I was 19.… Then I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to kill myself right away.[75]

Carol’s child is now 15 years old and has been raised by her mother.

In January 2009 Nkosazana went out with her cousin and her cousin’s boyfriend, who brought along a male friend. The male friend propositioned Nkosazana repeatedly over the course of the evening; she refused him over and over. Angry, the man took her to a township far from her home in Imbali, in KwaZulu-Natal province, in the middle of the night and threw her out of his car. The street where Nkosazana was abandoned and deserted; two men walked by, took her at knifepoint to a nearby shack, and raped her. She still has not come to terms with what happened. She said, “The rape comes back to be me in flashes and I break down. I broke down so badly I was hysterical; I was vomiting; I wasn’t eating; I couldn’t sleep.”[76]

Ashanti, 39, lives in Kwa-Thema, a township close to Johannesburg. Over the years, she has faced verbal abuse, threats, physical attacks, as well as domestic violence in a same-sex relationship; however, the assault that affected her most was that which took place on her twin 13-year-old daughters one evening in 2001 as they were returning from a local beauty contest.

[My daughters] never got home. I looked for them all night. At 3:00 a.m., I broke. I told my mum something’s wrong ... they are not fine. The next day, Sunday, at 11:00 a.m., my daughters came home; their long skirts were black. When the men were raping my daughters, they said to them, “We are doing this so you grow up knowing you must sleep with men.”
One of my daughters committed suicide after six months. She wanted me to kill her. She couldn’t deal; people would say things to her. That’s how I lost my baby. I feel guilt. It was because of me. If I [had] never exposed them to [my lesbianism], they would still be alive.

Since then Ashanti has tried to kill herself five times, most recently in 2007. Her other daughter has also attempted suicide.

It comes over you, you can’t resist…. The talkative one, who used to be proud of her mum, she died. I don’t want to talk about it. There’s no closure.[77]

Although femme lesbians are often read as being heterosexual and face the same risks as other women, if their sexual orientation becomes known this may increase their risk of sexual violence.

In November 2007, Puleng, a femme lesbian who has dated men and has a child with an ex-boyfriend, was living in eMbalenhle, Mpumalanga province. She was returning from a club one night with her female cousin, who disapproved of Puleng’s lesbianism, when four men accosted and raped her in nearby bushes. Her cousin walked away. Puleng said:

They said to me “We’ll show you you’re a woman”…. I thought maybe by telling my cousin, by saying openly I was a lesbian, I provoked them…. They believe women should be with men….

Abigail, 37, lives in a small town in the Eastern Cape where people know she is a lesbian. In March and April 2010 she was in Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal, for training, where she met a man through a friend who expressed interest in her. Abigail’s friend told the man that Abigail was a lesbian.

We went out…. He tried to talk to me, he proposed. I said, “No.” He asked, “Are you not interested in me or just not interested at all?” I told him, “You’re a nice guy, but I don’t go for men.”

While giving Abigail a ride back from the outing, the man tricked her into going to his house. Once there, he raped Abigail and then fell asleep. Abigail escaped. “I was just walking, not knowing what direction, there were dogs barking,” she said. “I was just wearing my top, naked on the bottom except for underwear. I kept walking, praying I would see someone….”[79]

Although Abigail registered a case of rape and was given a case number (140), she was later told by the investigating officer that her case was in fact registered as number 139, which she discovered did not treat her complaint as one of rape. Abigail was not able to transfer the case to the Eastern Cape, where she lives, though she eventually managed to have her case re-registered as a rape case. The defendant argued during trial that the sex had been consensual, and, in July 2011, the regional court in Durban found the defendant not guilty of rape on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Abigail told Human Rights Watch that the judge commented that Abigail’s testimony as to whether she had consented to sex or not was not reliable because she had decided she was a lesbian after she had already borne three children.

In January 2006 Nontle was raped by her ex-boyfriend when she left him for a woman.

My ex-boyfriend guessed I was a lesbian. I was wearing baggy jeans, t-shirt, takkies [sneakers], baseball hat, dreads. He grabbed me and started beating me. … I knew there was no point in going to the police. He came back the next week waving his gun saying he could kill me then if he liked.[80]

Vicki was regularly raped by her husband, who knew she was a lesbian. “He called me stabane, beat me up, raped me, to show me how I should be receiving pleasure,” she said. She was also raped in 1995, when she was 20 and lived in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. The rapist was her male best friend who attacked her at a party after seeing her kiss another woman.

He said, “Let’s take a walk, smoke a joint”… We went away from the house and then he raped me. During the rape he said, “This is what you should be feeling. Hopefully now you’ll be with a man.” I had a bust lip. He hit me over the head. I had known him for years.

Vicki became pregnant after the rape and had a child who now lives with her mother. The parents of the former friend, who raped Vicki, live next door to her parents.[81] Vicki did not make a criminal report to the police about the rapes by her husband or her former friend.

Rutendo grew up in Pietermaritzburg. Aware from the age of 14 that she was a lesbian, she was afraid to come out and instead joined a local abstinence group as a foil for not having sex with men. She was raped by a close family friend and, as with Mosa, Tendai, and Saden, the perpetrator infected her with HIV. The man who raped her was a family friend who lived close to her parents’ house.

I got pregnant and my mother found out. She tried to get me married to the guy. I refused. My mother was happy when I was pregnant. The guy apologized; he wanted to marry me. I refused.
I thought about getting an abortion. I tried to take some pills to kill myself and the child but I ended up in hospital. I hated each and every moment. I didn’t want to breastfeed the child. She always reminded me of what happened. She looks like him. My mum wanted him to pay maintenance, but he said he wanted the child.
I wanted to give her up for adoption, to a lesbian couple. But she started getting sick at two weeks, so, I got tested [and found out that she was HIV positive]…. I’m on ARVs [anti-retroviral therapy] now. My daughter is [HIV] positive. She also has kidney and heart failure problems.[82]

In 2002 Lefu worked in a gay bar in Johannesburg. A patron of the bar named Patrick told her he was gay and they became friends. One night late in 2002, Lefu and a gay male friend went out with Patrick and a male friend of his. Patrick took them to a flat in a deserted building and there became aggressive and started hitting Lefu and her friend. Lefu, shocked, demanded that she and her friend be allowed to leave. Patrick pulled out a gun:

He said to us: “When you take a good look at me, do you think I’m gay? I’ve got a wife. I’ve got kids. What makes you think you’re a man?… ‘This thing’ [homosexuality] doesn’t make sense.… This is a sin, God doesn’t like this.”

Patrick and his companion repeatedly raped Lefu and her gay male friend and made them take showers in the morning before leaving. As they returned home, Lefu’s friend told her, “If you tell anyone, don’t include me.” Lefu speaks of the debilitating effect the assault had on her physical and mental well-being:

Some situations don’t just go away.… They keep on coming back. It destroyed my studies; they were going to cancel my learnership [scholarship]. I lost self-esteem. [I felt as if] people [could] do whatever they want with me; I [couldn’t] do anything [to stop them]. It affected my relationships. [If] someone approached me, I couldn’t say “no.” I was messed up big time. I felt dirty. I felt as if people were looking down at me, as if they knew what had happened to me.[83]

Some interviewees reported that their girlfriends had been raped for being lesbians. Terry’s ex-girlfriend was attacked in Gugulethu township outside Cape Town in 2004 on her way home from work.  According to Terry:

She was attacked by five guys…. They knew her. They said they wanted to teach her about men and they wanted her to leave girls alone. She played soccer. Everyone knew [assumed] that she was a lesbian…. She didn’t want to talk about [the rape]. She went to the clinic but didn’t lay a case because she wasn’t fully out and [her sexual orientation] would have come out.... Her family still doesn’t know.[84]

Tumeleng’s ex-girlfriend was also raped in March 2008 by men who knew Tumeleng by name and told her girlfriend “she shouldn’t go out with girls.”

She didn’t tell anyone. She needs counseling. She hates her life. She blames everyone. She started drinking more. She tried committing suicide twice, [the] last time in January 2010.… I went to a counselor…[who] was interested in my sexuality only; it was no use. She kept asking why I date women, how we have sex, etc.[85]

Masego’s ex-girlfriend narrowly escaped being raped by some men who cornered her as she was leaving Masego’s house after a visit. Masego said:

They had seen us together and they said to her, “You look straight.” They tried to stab her but a nearby guy saved her. She broke up with me to be safe. She said she was going to go back to dating guys.[86]

Fear, Vulnerability, and Staying Safe

Lesbians and transgender men live in constant fear of harassment as well as physical and sexual violence. This fear is so pervasive that even those who experience it first-hand take it for granted and often do not talk about it as a specific hardship unless asked directly. For instance, Nkosazana, 25, who was raped in 2009 and is now out as a lesbian in the community, refers to the harassment she endures as “normal.”[87] With a few exceptions, all interviewees cited being sexually assaulted as their primary fear.

Several lesbians, transgender men, and gender non-conforming interviewees said that it was all but inevitable that they would eventually be raped. Nombeko, who is 18 years old and dating a butch lesbian, said:

I’ll get raped because I’m a lesbian. My girlfriend stays alone. Everyone knows this. For sure, they are planning something. It’s just that the day hasn’t come yet. I don’t want guys in my community to know when I’m [at my girlfriend’s house]. They will come when I’m there. They will rape both of us.[88]

Sibonakaliso, 25, too, seems to have accepted the possibility that she will be raped because of her sexual orientation, though she tries to lower the odds by hiding her relationship with her girlfriend.

One day [rape] can happen to me. I know this. I have a girlfriend [but] I tell people she’s just a friend. I hear stories of lesbians being attacked, raped, murdered.… One day that might happen to me.[89]

Sibiniso, 41, only feels safe in the company of lesbians.

I don’t stay late [in public places]. I don’t trust straight men, also straight women—they have boyfriends or other male friends. They can rape me, they will rape me.[90]

Faced with constant threat and with little reason to believe that police or anyone else will intervene or protect them, lesbians and transgender men develop individual and collective strategies to try to stay safe. Some of the common strategies—which greatly curtail their personal freedom—include never being alone in public, especially after dark; not acting in ways that attract men’s attention; never going anywhere without reliable transportation; carefully choosing the spaces where they socialize; and not dating people from the same neighborhood in order to reduce the chances of being widely known as lesbian.[91] 

Kefilwe, whose friends were raped, does not venture out late or far from home.

The guys [who raped my friends]… know how to dodge the police. No one knows exactly where they are staying. Since this happened, I decided [that] if I go out, I’ll go nearby and be back home by 10 [p.m.]…. I didn’t even want to go to the shop. If I saw those guys ... I know I will be next.[92]

While some people find ways to be relatively safe by restricting their movements, others find that the only solution is to stay at home (which may not be completely safe spaces either, as previous testimonies have shown). Mosa said:

I’m always indoors, do things at home or in the neighborhood. I never go out late, as it’s dangerous out here.[93]

[44]Human Rights Watch interview with Nontle (pseudonym), East London, June 29, 2010.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with Naledi (pseudonym), Katlehong, June 14, 2010.

[46]Human Rights Watch interview with Nonyameko (pseudonym), Khayelitsha, June 21, 2010.

[47]A number of interviewees referred to this common myth that lesbians “have snakes.”

[48]Human Rights Watch interview with Lee (pseudonym), Lusikisiki, July 2, 2010.

[49]Human Rights Watch interview with Nosizwe (pseudonym), Tzaneen, June 15, 2010.

[50]  Human Rights Watch interview with Mosa (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 13, 2010.

[51]Human Rights Watch interview with Nthanda (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, July 13, 2010.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Kefilwe (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 13, 2010.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Zebo (pseudonym), Kwa-Thema, March 13, 2009.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Masego (pseudonym), Nelspruit, July 11, 2010.

[55]Human Rights Watch interview with Zebo (pseudonym), Kwa-Thema, March 13, 2009.

[56]Human Rights Watch interview with Nthanda (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Nkosazana (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[58]Human Rights Watch interview with Denise (pseudonym), Lusikisiki, July 2, 2010.

[59]Human Rights Watch interview with Vicki (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[60]Human Rights Watch interview with Tau (pseudonym), Khayelitsha, June 22, 2010.

[61]Human Rights Watch interview with Vinny (pseudonym), Lusikisiki, July 2, 2010.

[62]  Human Rights Watch interview with Montsho (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 2, 2010.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview with Kaya (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview with Gloria (pseudonym), Nelspruit, July 11, 2010.

[65]  Human Rights Watch interview with Abigail (pseudonym), East London, June 29, 2010.

[66]Human Rights Watch interview with Oyama (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 7, 2010.

[67]See CSVR, “Tracking Rape Case Attrition in Gauteng: The Police Investigation Stage,”, (accessed on April 1, 2011), p. 18, for numbers suggesting that at least 50 percent of rapes against women in heterosexual relationships happen inside the home, which makes traditional policing measures inadequate in such cases,. Also see CSVR, “A State of Sexual Tyranny: The Prevalence, Nature and Causes of Sexual Violence in South Africa,”, (accessed on April 1, 2011), for similar figures and for a comprehensive analysis of the problem of sexual violence in South Africa,.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview with Nosizwe (pseudonym), Tzaneen, June 15, 2010.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with Farai (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with Onalenna (pseudonym), Tzaneen, June 15, 2010.

[71]Human Rights Watch interview with Frances (pseudonym), Nelspruit, July 11, 2010.

[72]Human Rights Watch interview with Mosa (pseudonym), Lusikisiki, July 2, 2010.

[73]Human Rights Watch interview with Saden (pseudonym), Tzaneen, June 15, 2010.

[74]Human Rights Watch interview with Lee (pseudonym), Lusikisiki, July 2, 2010.

[75]Human Rights Watch interview with Carol (pseudonym), Ermelo, July 10, 2010.

[76]Human Rights Watch interview with Nkosazana (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[77]Human Rights Watch interview with Ashanti (pseudonym), Kwa-Thema, March 18, 2009.

[78]Human Rights Watch interview with Puleng (pseudonym), Ermelo, July 10, 2010.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Abigail (pseudonym), East London, June 29, 2010.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Nontle (pseudonym), East London, June 29, 2010.

[81]Human Rights Watch interview with Vicki (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[82]Human Rights Watch interview with Rutendo (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Lefu (pseudonym), Johannesburg, March 17, 2009.

[84]Human Rights Watch interview with Terry (pseudonym), Khayelitsha, June 22, 2010.

[85]  Human Rights Watch interview with Tumeleng (pseudonym), East London, June 29, 2010.

[86]Human Rights Watch interview with Masego (pseudonym), Nelspruit, July 11, 2010.

[87]  Human Rights Watch interview with Nkosazana (pseudonym), Pietermaritzburg, August 4, 2010.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Nombeko (pseudonym), Khayelitsha, June 21, 2010.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Sibonakaliso (pseudonym), Thohoyandou, June 14, 2010.

[90]  Human Rights Watch interview with Sibiniso (pseudonym), Kwa-Thema, March 18, 2009.

[91]  Human Rights Watch interview with Tendai (pseudonym), East London, June 29, 2010.

[92]  Human Rights Watch interview with Kefilwe (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 13, 2010.

[93]  Human Rights Watch interview with Mosa (pseudonym), Katlehong, July 13, 2010.