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In South Africa's black townships, being gay can be fatal

Noxolo Nogwaza died because she dressed like a man and wasn't afraid of anyone, friends and backers in Kwa-Thema say, one of the latest of a series of brutal rapes and killings of black lesbian women.

May 27, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • In South Africa, patrons visit a predominantly gay tavern in Kwa-Thema, east of Johannesburg. The township was known as a haven for black gays and lesbians, but activists say that the death there in late April of Noxolo Nogwaza highlights an alarming rise of homophobic violence in some of the country's most impoverished communities.
In South Africa, patrons visit a predominantly gay tavern in Kwa-Thema,… (Denis Farrell / Associated…)

Reporting from Kwa-Them — A feather of acrid smoke drifts across an open drain choked with bulrushes and plastic bottles beside a muddy lane. It's a forlorn place that will always belong to Noxolo Nogwaza. This is her murder scene.

The thick smoke, from a fire kindled by a traditional healer, covers the faces of those who have come to grieve, bringing new tears. Noxolo's aunt, Nonyaniso Nogwaza, knows that she is here, somewhere, beyond the smoke that will bleach out the evil that still lurks.

Noxolo died because she dressed like a man and wasn't afraid of anyone, friends and supporters in this township say, one of the latest of a series of brutal rapes and killings of black lesbian women that has stunned this country. South Africa, an avowedly tolerant "rainbow nation," is one of the few in the world allowing gay marriage.

In one particularly appalling case this month, a 13-year-old girl was gang-raped because of her sexual orientation, according to South Africa's Justice Department.

Noxolo's name means peace. She loved soccer and Kwaito music, a kind of hip-hop, and grew up hanging around boys and behaving like one. The 24-year-old lived with her grandmother and her closest confidant was her aunt, Nonyaniso. The two never spoke about Noxolo's sexuality; it wasn't necessary.

"I knew about it, the way she was acting. She didn't tell me exactly, but I saw. The way she dressed and the way she liked to associate with guys. She dressed like a guy."

Noxolo left the Bar Lounge in this township east of Johannesburg in the early hours of Easter, April 24. She was attacked in a lane behind a supermarket, about 50 yards from a group of houses. She was raped with a broken bottle, repeatedly stabbed with broken glass and battered with bricks. Her teeth were knocked out and her head partially crushed by a cinder block.

"I don't want to cry. I'm not going to cry," Nonyaniso says, remembering her niece's body, stripped of dignity. But the tears escape. "They killed her like a dog, like an animal. She was so wonderful. I lost a friend. I lost a sister."

Nonyaniso used to buy her niece men's clothing. Now she is taking care Noxolo's two children, Lindiwe, a 4-year-old girl, and Sipho, a 7-year-old boy.

South Africa has a liberal constitution promising equal rights for all, and cosmopolitan Cape Town has a thriving gay scene. But for black lesbians living in urban townships, it's little better than in many other countries on a homophobic continent.

In a society that is deeply religious, traditional and highly patriarchal, lesbians and gay men contradict the dominant view of African manhood.

Across Africa, gay people are threatened, humiliated, raped, beaten, killed, jailed, outed in front-page newspaper stories, condemned by preachers as un-Christian and by politicians and traditional leaders as un-African. In Uganda, a measure setting forth the death penalty for homosexuality was proposed, but recently that penalty was dropped from the bill, which is yet to go to the parliament.

In South African townships there's a crime dubbed "corrective rape," rape to "cure" lesbians, and sometimes gay men and transsexuals. They are told they are being taught a lesson: how to be a real woman or man, survivors say.

"They say, 'We'll sort you out. At the end of the day, you are a woman. You have to find a man.' They feel that being gay is not African and we are bringing another culture to the community," says Ntsupe Mohapi, 38, a gay activist in Kwa-Thema who has been threatened and taunted, but not attacked.

Besides Noxolo, two other openly gay women have been killed in Kwa-Thema since 2008. All played soccer as well as, or better than, most men. All of them dressed in a masculine style.

"Homosexuality is seen as an import from the West. We are seen as betrayers of culture and betrayers of tradition … some kind of imperialistic force that is attacking the African way of life," says Fikile Vilakazi of the Coalition of African Lesbians. The group's Western funding reinforces suspicions.

Surrounded by stretches of dry grassland and factories, Kwa-Thema's streets echo with car horns and music. Unemployed people walk aimlessly, in seeming slow motion. A graffitied rock urges people to "PRAY NOW." A dilapidated factory has been converted into a church. A man sits on an upturned bucket, selling bananas. Girls in tight tops, miniskirts and leggings trail about the streets. Vast liquor warehouses serve the poor.

For years, Mohapi says, the township was so tolerant of homosexuals that gay people moved from other parts of the country to live here.

"The history here was that gays and lesbians were not afraid," says Mohapi, who wears a cap and jeans with fashionable holes. She was raised in an extremely religious family and suppressed her sexuality until she was 20, fearing her parents' reaction. She moved out of her family home and wrote her mother a letter, explaining. The two never speak of it, although they are very close.

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