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
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
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
"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