Black lesbian visibility matters!

November 25 – December 10 marks the ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence,’ an annual international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls. Astraea grantee partner in South Africa, Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) works to combat violence and injustice against Black lesbian women in the townships of South Africa, which is particularly prevalent, but often silenced.

One of the first organizations of its kind in South Africa, FEW, based in Johannesburg, is a black lesbian feminist organization engaged in advocacy, education and action to ensure that black lesbians enjoy holistic freedom in all aspects of their lives. While on paper the South African constitution does prioritize human rights and equality for all, poorer queer, black women living in the townships are often targets of widespread discrimination and violence. FEW works to empower black lesbians in the townships to celebrate and navigate their sexualities and queer identities.

FEW are also the organizers of the annual Soweto Pride march, first launched in 2004. Soweto is a township of the city of Johannesburg, home to anti-apartheid icons Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Continuing the township’s history of advocating for freedom from oppression and violence, Soweto Pride is a grassroots-led Pride march and celebration for those who have often felt left out of the more corporate-endorsed Johannesburg Pride march, as well as to bring visibility to the black lesbian community of the townships.

As 2018’s Soweto Pride activities came to an end, Astraea Foundation Program Officer Lame Olebile sat down with FEW’s Jade Madingwane, to discuss the history and significance of Soweto Pride, the future of FEW, and how Black lesbians in South Africa are creating spaces for themselves and reclaiming their voices.

LO: How is FEW working to center black lesbian leadership?

JM: There is a real need in the townships to have conversations around what it means to be lesbian, black, and feminist, and there is also a critical need to center Black lesbian leadership, in order to prioritize the specific concerns faced by black lesbians. FEW is the only organization that works with lesbian women; there are provinces that have LGBTQIA+ based orgs but not ones that are specifically Black lesbian focused because there’s a lot that comes with being Black and lesbian, just like there’s a lot that comes with being gay or trans.

One way FEW is doing this is through the creation of the Rainbow Activist Alliance (RAA), which is a network of 15 LGBTQI community-based organizations across the country collectively working to create safer communities, ensure access to appropriate public health care, ensure non-discrimination within the criminal justice system, and build black lesbian leadership. We are really working to have the RAA up, running, and strong so that its members can become leaders in their various townships and advocate for issues of greater visibility and access for constituents.

LO: What do you feel are the politics that are fundamental to Pride, and specifically to Soweto Pride? What is its significance?

JM: Being able to celebrate our queer identities is number one. The social spaces which we have within our townships are generally hetero-based and they are not often LGBTQI friendly, so they don’t cater to our queer identities at all. Soweto Pride is a space where we can celebrate our identities as Black lesbian women from the township.

Soweto Pride is also about raising awareness about violence and discrimination in the townships and communities we live and exist in. I can’t take a walk and hold my girlfriend’s hand because it can lead to violence. We need to openly say, we know that women are dead because of their identities, and we know that most hate crimes also happen within the township, and we can’t disregard these things. It’s about having conversations about why people are violent towards black women’s bodies, and particularly lesbians? What is it that upsets people about us being queer?

Being visible matters. Women are so often looked down upon by communities, and told, you need to be a mother, and cooking and cleaning, but a lot of people don’t seem to think that women have politics. For me, being out there and claiming the streets of Soweto is critical because I exist in those streets and it’s not like I can just go somewhere else. I need to celebrate my queer identity in these streets and I need to start where I come from as a Black lesbian woman.

LO: Pride itself has been a contested issue in South Africa, thinking about the interruptions of Joburg Pride, by activists and the politics that was rooted in. How different from white corporate Joburg pride do you feel Soweto is? What is the local feeling of Soweto Pride?

JM: Soweto Pride is about marching in the streets, and taking up space and making noise in the streets that we exist in and are occupying on that day. The politics really differ because we are a political entity that says our statement looks like fighting in the streets, singing in the streets, being angry, being sad in the streets that we exist in and come from. It’s also about raising awareness; it’s a political statement.

Joburg Pride is for the rich, for a lack of a better word; it is for people in the North who have houses with high walls and proper security, where they can be lesbians freely. We don’t have that. Joburg Pride is not a free Pride that is accessible for Black people that are marginalized and come from the townships. Soweto Pride looks like a free pride for all, Soweto Pride looks like raising awareness in the streets, and celebrating your queer identity even if you don’t have the money. At Soweto Pride, anyone can come and dance and network and celebrate themselves as a queer person.

LO: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in organizing in Soweto?

JM: Organizing is one hell of a job; it is taxing and emotional and draining. One of our main challenges is finding the balance between creating social spaces for our communities, and more targeted organizing spaces. We can’t always be putting our minds to work, like wondering “what are we going to do about the police that are brutalizing us?” etc, because that is so emotionally and mentally exhausting. We need to have social spaces because they function as a coping mechanism for many of our constituents, because we’re always talking about serious things and these spaces give us a break from that.

Another challenge we face as an organization is the intergenerational divide in the townships. We have a lot of people who say, “hey you’ve been doing this work for a long time, I’m sure a lot of people have gotten it by now that we’re lesbians and we’re here to stay,” but for us the constant organizing and advocacy work is critical because generations differ in their attitudes and points of view. So, we’re constantly working to sensitize people and raise awareness in different ways about the lives of black lesbians in the townships.

LO: So what do you see as the future for FEW?

JM: For me, the future of FEW looks like going back to some of the things we used to do really well. Like reviving the lesbian soccer team or drama series we used to have, ‘The Roses Have Thorns’ which was a project in different townships where they had plays that spoke to living as Black lesbian women. Those stories are really powerful because they tell their queer narratives, which we don’t often get to hear. Now, we’re not even accessing places like radio stations where we can have narratives by queer people, whereas before those spaces existed for those stories which help queer people to see themselves. So for me it looks like having these things back up and running, which are both entertainment, as well as advocacy tools which help us learn things. It’s also having those safe spaces for Black lesbian women because it’s really tough not having those spaces as queer people, and having to force yourself into spaces where you are not welcome.

LO: And what does the future hold for Soweto Pride?

JM: For me, the most important thing is having that visibility within the streets of Soweto. So we should move around a lot for Soweto Pride and not just have it in one area, because we can’t always be visible in just one area. The future looks like moving around different townships and having queer people be a norm within these townships and not necessarily in one area where we know it’s safe to be queer but also in those spaces which make us uncomfortable, but where we also know queer people exist.

Read more about FEW here.

Meet our grantee partner, S.H.E.

Leigh Ann van der Merwe, Founder of Astraea grantee partner S.H.E., discusses S.H.E.’s work and shares what it’s meant for the organization to receive support from Astraea.

Based in East London, Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa (S.H.E.) was formed in 2010 to address the gender imbalance in the African trans* movement, build the leadership of trans* women, and work for greater inclusion of trans* women and their issues in African women’s and feminist movements at the local, national and regional levels.

In the above video, Leigh Ann van der Merwe, S.H.E.’s Founder, discusses S.H.E.’s work and shares what it’s meant for the organization to receive support from Astraea.

Learn more about S.H.E.

Public Statement by the African Intersex Movement

Between the 24th and 26th November 2017, the First African Intersex Meeting took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. Participants drafted a Public Statement to extend demands aiming to end discrimination against intersex people in Africa, and to ensure the right of bodily integrity, physical autonomy and self-determination.

Public Statement by the African Intersex Movement

26 November 2017

Between the 24th and 26th November 2017, the First African Intersex Meeting took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. This meeting brought together 22 intersex people representing intersex organisations from 7 African countries.

Preamble

We recall the principles of the Public Statement by the Third International Intersex Forum (known as the Malta Declaration) and extend the demands aiming to end discrimination against intersex people in Africa, to ensure the right of bodily integrity, physical autonomy and self-determination.

We affirm that intersex people are real, and we exist in all countries of Africa. As intersex people in Africa, we live in a society that perpetuates violence and killings of intersex people by cultural, religious, traditional and medical beliefs and practices. Therefore, we must be supported to be the drivers of social, political and legislative changes that concern us.

Demands

  • To put an end to infanticide and killings of intersex people led by traditional and religious beliefs.
  • To put an end to mutilating and ‘normalising’ practices such as genital surgeries, psychological and other medical treatments through legislative and other means (such as education, policy and treatment protocol change). Intersex people must be empowered to make their own decisions affecting their own bodily integrity, physical autonomy and self-determination.
  • To include intersex education in antenatal counselling and support.
  • To put an end to non-consensual sterilisation of intersex people.
  • To depathologise variations in sex characteristics in medical practices, guidelines, protocols and classifications, such as the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases.
  • To ensure that sex or gender classifications are amendable through a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individuals concerned. All adults and capable minors should be able to choose between female (F), male (M), intersex or multiple options. In the future, sex or gender should not be a category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody.
  • To raise awareness around intersex issues and the rights of intersex people in communities and society at large.
  • To create and facilitate supportive, safe and celebratory environments for intersex people, their families and surroundings.
  • To ensure that intersex people have the right to full information and access to their own medical records and history.
  • To ensure that all professionals and healthcare providers that have a specific role to play in intersex people’s well-being are adequately trained to provide quality services.
  • To acknowledge the suffering and injustice caused to intersex people
  • To build intersex anti-discrimination legislation in addition to other grounds, and to ensure protection against intersectional discrimination.
  • To ensure the provision of all human rights and citizenship rights to intersex people, including the right to marry and form a family.
  • To ensure that intersex people are able to participate in competitive sport, at all levels, in accordance with their legal sex. Intersex athletes who have been humiliated or stripped of their titles should receive reparation and reinstatement.
  • To recognise that medicalization and stigmatisation of intersex people result in significant trauma and mental health concerns.
  • In view of ensuring the bodily integrity and well-being of intersex people, autonomous non-pathologising psycho-social and peer support be available to intersex people throughout their life (as self-required), as well as to parents and/or care providers.

In view of the above the African Intersex Movement calls on:
1. National governments to address the concerns raised by the African Intersex Movement and draw adequate solutions in direct collaboration with intersex representatives and organisations.

2. Traditional and religious leaders to stop harmful cultural practices, such as tradition-led mutilations and killings of intersex people.

3. National, regional and international human rights institutions to take on board, and provide visibility to intersex issues in their work.

4. Community leaders to engage in intersex education to dispel misconceptions and stigma around intersex people.

5. Human rights organisations to contribute to build bridges with intersex organisations and build a basis for mutual support and meaningful engagement. This should be done in a spirit of collaboration and no-one should instrumentalise intersex issues as a means for other ends.

6. Funders to engage with intersex organisations and support them in the struggle for visibility, increase their capacity, the building of knowledge and the affirmation of their human rights.

Intersex South Africa (ISSA)

Intersex South Africa (ISSA) is dedicated to raising awareness of intersex issues in South Africa while advocating and supporting all intersexed South Africans.

Intersex South Africa (ISSA) is dedicated to raising awareness of intersex issues in South Africa while advocating and supporting all intersexed South Africans. The organization was formed to act as a catalyst for information dissemination, awareness raising, and advocating for the rights of intersex people in South Africa. Unfortunately, in February 2014 Sally passed on, which led to the organization becoming dormant until 2017 when the organization was revived by South African activists. Their mission is to spread knowledge about intersex, to provide support for the intersex community, to ensure that intersex people have the right to full information and access to their own medical records and history combating discrimination on the grounds of intersex, to put an end to infanticide and killings of intersex people led by traditional and religious beliefs, to put an end to non-consensual sterilization of intersex people, to put an end to infanticide and killings of intersex people led by traditional and religious beliefs, to include intersex variations as healthy manifestations of bodily diversity in the foundational stages of education curricular

UCT: The Trans Collective

The Trans Collective emerged from a void in the decolonial project at the University of Cape Town, home of the student movement Rhodes Must Fall.

The Trans Collective emerged from a void in the decolonial project at the University of Cape Town, home of the student movement Rhodes Must Fall. 2015 works include the complete degendering of a main campus’s bathroom, replacing signs with gender neutral signage; a host of well attended events: panel discussions and talks; as well as hosting a campaign to run for the Student Representative Council. The Collective often produces content via long form prose on its Facebook page, which serves to intensify, strengthen and sophisticate the discourse surrounding black queer trans people in post-Apartheid Apartheid South Africa. The Collective is most well-known for their 2016 disruption, shutdown, and capture of the Rhodes Must Fall exhibition, Echoing the Voices from within for tokenising trans people, using their signature of nude radical protest – a bold statement for trans bodies which are sites of wars, both internally and from external forces.