Meet a Grantee Partner
Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
In April 2008, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project was conducting activist trainings in Kwa-Thema Township, South Africa. Walking home one night, one of their members—Eudy Simelane, an out butch lesbian activist and a former national soccer star—was gang-raped and murdered. Already building a base of politically educated and active LGBTI citizens and supporters in low-income and majority-black townships, the Project turned grief into action and mobilized hundreds in response.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Phumi Mtewa, the Project called out to a diverse group—government officials, religious leaders, LGBTI people and straight allies. Together, they led the fight for the investigation of the rape and murder as a hate crime and to bring the case to trial.
Almost a year after the murder, they succeeded. With emergency funding from Astraea, Project members worked day and night. They galvanized 500 people to show support as the trial dragged on for three days, busing in those without means of travel. They fed the growing crowd of supporters and provided counseling as the details of the crime were revealed. They landed national and international press coverage for the case and conducted over 30 radio and television interviews. One perpetrator confessed and was sentenced to life in prison. Separate trials for the other three men indicted dragged on; two were acquitted. Finally, in September 2009, the last perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison. The Project’s efforts had paid off. Despite more than 30 reported murders of LGBT people in the last decade, it was the first time that a trial had led to convictions.
Kwa-Thema Township served as a gay haven in the ’80s, which is unique in South Africa, where 80% of adults believe homosexuality is “always wrong,”1and in a recent study, one in four men admitted to rape.2 This attitude and pervasive sexual violence are compounded in a growing trend of “curative rape,” purported to cure homosexuality and remind women of their proper place. By contrast, the South African Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, and the country was the first in Africa and fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The rape and murder of Eudy and other lesbians and gender-non-conforming people bring this disparity into sharp relief.
For this reason, the Project takes every opportunity to forge dialogue for cultural change. In April 2009, Project members gathered 700 people to build a memorial bridge across the ditch where Eudy’s body was discovered. Eudy’s family and the family priest, along with lesbian activists, African National Congress members and other township residents worked for several days. Men laid cement blocks and old metal was welded together for a handrail to assist children and the elderly across. A stone mosaic of Eudy’s name was arranged in the cement.
It was a monumental display of community support. But change is slow. Not two months later, a former teammate of Eudy’s and outspoken LGBTI activist, Girly Nkosi, was badly beaten in an alley and passed away in the hospital.
Grieving but unthwarted, the Project members and allies stood up in the face of the backlash. In September 2009, in collaboration with other LGBTI groups (including several Astraea grantee partners), they organized the first-ever Pride March through the township, co-led by Eudy’s mother. Freedom songs reverberated through the main streets of Kwa-Thema. Eudy and Girly’s families and more than 600 people attended. A member of parliament and the mayor made speeches in support of the LGBTI community, marking another first.
The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project is preparing for the struggles ahead, to stem the increasing tide of violence against women and LGBTI people, reinvigorate the township as a safe haven and place of resistance, and finally end economic and social inequalities for all people in South Africa. Despite the nation’s LGBTI-friendly laws, Phumi emphasizes the slow and crucial work needed for cultural change, “to truly live the freedom, dignity and equality promised by our Constitution.”
1 “Pride and Prejudice: Public attitudes toward homosexuality.” Human Sciences Research Council Review, vol. 6 no. 4 (Nov. 2008), http://www.hsrc.ac.za/HSRC_Review_Article-121.phtml.
2 Rachel Jewkes, Yandisa Sikweyiya, Robert Morrell, Kristin Dunkle, “Understanding Men’s Health and Use of Violence: Interface of Rape and HIV in South Africa, Executive Summary,” Gender & Health Research Unit, South Africa Medical Research Council (June 2009, p. 1), www.mrc.ac.za/gender/men_exec_smry.pdf.
All photos courtesy of Lesbian and Gay Equality Project.