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(Johannesburg) – Black lesbians and transgender men in South African townships and rural areas face an overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence despite protections promised them in the country’s constitution, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 93-page report, “‘We’ll Show You You’re a Woman’: Violence and Discrimination Against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men,” is based on more than 120 interviews conducted in six provinces. Human Rights Watch found that lesbians and transgender men face extensive discrimination and violence in their daily lives, both from private individuals and government officials. The abusers of people known or assumed to be lesbian, bisexual, or transgender act with near-total impunity, Human Rights Watch found.

“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.”

Nearly all of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were reluctant to approach the police for protection or to report crimes. Of the few cases of sexual or physical violence against lesbians that have been prosecuted, the significance of sexual orientation has been acknowledged in only one.

In many instances, interviewees said, police did not respond appropriately when interviewees sought justice, or even compounded the initial abuse. Virtually all of those interviewed who tried to report physical or sexual violence to the police faced ridicule, harassment, and secondary victimization by police personnel.

Human Rights Watch found discrimination over and above the physical and sexual violence and the lack of redress. Those interviewed said they had been discriminated against in the fields of education and employment and denied services. Lesbians and transgender people who did not follow conventional patterns of dress and appearance and lacked family support were particularly vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.

The existing laws and policies on sexual orientation have failed to protect people or provide redress. Police, prosecutors, and the courts need to make effective implementation of these laws and policies a priority, Human Rights Watch said.

While the report documents the vulnerability of lesbians and transgender men, in particular, their treatment is part of a broader and chronic problem of gender-based violence in South Africa, Human Rights Watch noted.

The report’s recommendations include the following:

  • To the South African Police Services: separate out data on physical and sexual violence by motive to track incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence.
  • To the National Prosecuting Authority: ensure that all cases of sexual and physical violence against women and transgender people come to trial in a timely manner, and that prosecutors make cases involving sexual offenses a priority.
  • To the Department of Education: establish monitoring systems to ensure effective implementation of non-discrimination policies, such as a toll free help line for students to report discrimination and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse by  teachers and other school authorities.


“Legal rights are important and can be empowering, but they are meaningless in the face of the abuse, intimidation, and violence that people with unconventional gender and sexual expression face on a daily basis,” Nath said. “The government’s job does not end with passing rights-protecting legislation but also lies in ensuring that the laws translate into substantive rights for everyone, including the most marginalized groups and individuals.”

Victim Accounts (all the names here and in the report are pseudonyms):

“I was walking back from the club. Four guys raped me. I was screaming. They said to me, ‘We just wanted to show you you’re a woman.’ I thought it was my fault. I thought maybe by saying openly [that] I was a lesbian, I provoked them. That’s the whole thing. They believe women should [only] be with men.”
-Puleng, 23

“Another guy I knew in school said to me, ‘If I had a crew of guys, I would take you out of your house and take you to Crossroads [a busy intersection in Katlehong township] and rape you and kill you.’”
-Katlego, 21

“At the taxi ranks, there’s constant verbal abuse. 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.’ … They say they don’t want Sodom and Gomorrah.”
-Vicki, 35

“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.”
-Tanesha, 13

“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.”
-Nombeko, 18

“They all thought I had demons, that Satan has got me. I didn’t understand myself. The church … made me accept Jesus. They said I’ve been demonized but that I was now saved. They forced me to have a boyfriend. Every time he touched me I was scared.”
-Tendai, 28

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