by Sabine Neidhardt
On April 28, 2008, lesbian soccer queen Eudy Simelane ( 31 years old ) was found gang-raped and murdered in an open field some 200 meters ( approximately 650 feet ) from her family home in KwaThema—near Johannesburg, South Africa. Simelane is the latest known victim of what has been a steady escalation of violent crimes against Black lesbians since the country adopted one of the world's most progressive constitutions for the rights and protections of gays and lesbians in 1996. According to South African media sources, Simelane was acquainted with the five men who were arrested April 30 and later charged with robbery, rape and murder. During a bail hearing June 3, four of the men instructed their lawyers not to go ahead with the bail application. The case has since been postponed to June 26. ( Note: The case has now been postponed to July 31, according to the Times of South Africa. )
Ironically, as the country collectively celebrated its fourteenth year of liberation from white oppression, another Black woman was killed not only because she was a known lesbian, but because she was butch. Based on the confession of the first man arrested, Simelane challenged and physically beat one of the men when they tried to rob her. They retaliated by first stabbing and then raping her repeatedly, leaving her for dead with a total of 20 stab wounds.
Zanele Muholi, human rights activist and co-founder of Forum for the Empowerment of Women, the first all-Black lesbian community organization known on the continent, stressed that such extreme crimes get public attention, but hate crime has a far wider reach. 'There are so many cases of African women who are raped or beaten for their sexuality every day,' she stated.
Between 2002 and 2006, Muholi recorded the personal stories of more than 50 survivors from her Johannesburg community who were sexually and/or physically assaulted for being Black, African and queer. Of those, half were raped ( with another 5 having experienced attempted rape ) , and 18 were physically assaulted either on the streets or in their homes. Thirty-three out of the 50 women gender-identified as butch.
What struck Muholi about the outcome of her research was that it was, in fact, 'butches who are often the target of hate crimes, because they don't conform to what some men think an African woman should look and act like. Butches are more of a threat because their masculinity threatens the male ego, which then leads to what is called curative rape.'
One perpetrator of curative rape who confessed on tape to Muholi in an unsolicited 2003 interview, recounted: 'In 1996, me and three of my gangsters raped a lesbian friend of ours. We all knew that she was a virgin, but we wanted to prove her wrong, that she was not a man … .'
Simelane's murder is the seventh lesbophobic homicide since 2003, coming just 10 months after couple Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa was shot execution-style in Meadowlands last July.
Disturbingly, the perpetrators rarely face the justice system. Case dockets routinely go missing, or cases are dismissed in court due to the lack of evidence. During one post-rape medical examination attended by Muholi in March 2004, the attending doctor refused to report that that the 17-year-old rape survivor was forcefully penetrated. Based on his interrogation of the young woman's integrity about being both a lesbian and a Christian, she believed he was motivated by homophobia. No charges were laid and the man who raped her continues to live in her community.
In the following weeks, Windy City Times will run a series of related articles on homophobia and hate crimes against Black lesbians in South Africa in order to raise awareness about the realities of lesbian lives outside the North American context.
Sabine Neidhardt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto, Canada. In addition to her scholarly and activist work on the politics of sexuality and social movements in neoliberal South Africa, she plans to start a MSW program with a focus on trans-masculine youth and organizing in Toronto.