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Report: South African Lesbians, Trans Men Suffer Mass Discrimination

Africa is hardly a good place to be a lesbian, gay man or trans person, and that does not exclude South Africa. While South Africa is somewhat better than Nigeria or Uganda, it is still a very dangerous and deadly place to be LGBT. The Human Rights Watch did interviews and research into just how bad it is in South Africa, and how much has changed since the end of apartheid a decade and a half ago.

The short of it is that not much has changed, and being lesbian or gay is very dangerous.

The report documented discrimination and abuse against black lesbians, transgender men, and individuals born female who did not conform to gender norms. According to the summary of the report:

These individuals and groups experience discrimination, harassment, and violence at the hands of private individuals and sometimes state agents. They may be thrown out of home; ridiculed and abused at school; harassed, insulted, and beaten on the streets, in church, and at work; and threatened by neighbors and strangers. The abuse they face may be verbal, physical, or sexual, and may even result in murder. This is a far cry from the promise of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” contained in the constitution.

Of course, as in the rest of the world, economic and social position can impact the experience. Those who are middle-class are less likely to experience the same degree of prejudice and discrimination as those who are poor when it comes to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The report stated that “ Lack of access to such things as secure housing and transport options greatly increases people’s vulnerability to violence. Most of the respondents in this report are working-class lesbians, transgender men, and gender non-conforming people, many of whom have experienced abuse, threats, violence, and discrimination throughout their lives, and have few resources for mitigating their vulnerability.”

The report noted that it was a near universal experience for one of the LGBT Community that they interviewed to experience verbal abuse, ridicule or harassment. Several interviewers, mostly butch lesbians and transgender men, were the victims of physical assaults. As we already know, there has always been a significant number of sexual assaults perpetuated against lesbians, though we did not know about the numbers when it came to trans men. Still, what we learned is that those who are victims of those crimes are often “attacked by strangers, recent acquaintances, and sometimes by friends” and that “most often, the attacks occur in isolated public places or in private spaces to which they are taken against their will.”

The report also found that there was a huge problem when it came to the police. When investigating crimes against lesbians and trans men, often time there is a great deal of “inefficiency, corruption, inaction and even complicity with the perpetrators.” Several of those interviewed said that the police often seemed preoccupied with how lesbians had sex than in tracking down the criminals- something that has not changed in more than a decade. Of course, making matters worse, sometimes it is the police who are the ones who commit the crimes. This means that many lesbians and trans men refuse to go to the police or are unwilling to do so, and that they have little to no faith in the police.

The Human Rights Watch offered these recommendations:

To the South African President and Government Leaders

Publicly condemn gender-based violence, including homophobic and transphobic violence, and institute public education initiatives to increase awareness in all sectors of society of the Equality Clause of the Constitution and principles of non-discrimination.
Establish systems of monitoring and evaluation in key government departments—including in the departments of education, health, police, women and children, and the National Prosecuting Authority—to ensure implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws and standards.

To the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development

Work with the National Prosecution Authority to address barriers to prosecuting cases of sexual and physical violence, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender expression, and ensure that such cases are resolved in a timely manner.
The Department’s Gender Directorate should develop, in collaboration with civil society, a national plan for ensuring that women and transgender persons benefit in practice from existing constitutional rights to personal security, education, privacy, and freedom of expression and movement at local, provincial, and national levels.

To South African Police Services

In collecting data on physical and sexual violence, disaggregate the data by motive to track incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence.
Ensure that every police station at all times has an officer trained and equipped to understand, properly document, and efficiently handle cases of sexual violence—including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender expression—in a non-judgmental manner.

You can read the full report here.

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