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.

TransWave Jamaica

TransWave is a non-governmental organization working to advance the health, welfare, and well-being of the transgender community in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

TransWave is a non-governmental organization working to advance the health, welfare, and well-being of the transgender community in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Founded in 2015, they started as an advocacy initiative in the form of a blog. The idea was formulated by their co-founders Akilah White and Neish McLean during a workshop hosted by WE-Change Jamaica and partners.

Anonymous India grantee partners

Astraea currently supports many grantee partners doing crucial work to support LGBTQI communities in India. For their safety, the names of many of these organizations have been left anonymous.

Ivy Foundation

Ivy Foundation was formed to give a voice to those willing to speak and those unaware of the abuse intersex persons are going through, so intersex persons can understand who they are.

Ivy Foundation was formed to give a voice to those willing to speak and those unaware of the abuse intersex persons are going through, so intersex persons can understand who they are. They formed to create awareness and advocate for intersex people, to create brochures that can be distributed in public spaces to bring more awareness to intersex issues and intersex people. Their mission is to demystify the myth that intersex people are demon babies or bad luck to local communities.

West Africa Trans Forum (WATF)

West Africa Trans Forum (WATF) is a network of Trans * people and/or groups led by Trans, intersex and non-conforming * people in West Africa

West Africa Trans Forum (WATF) was founded in June 2017. It is a network of Trans * people and/or groups led by Trans, intersex and non-conforming * people whose work requires a strong movement both nationally and regionally because they face a great threat in issues of violations and discrimination. The mission of WATF is to address violence, stigma and discrimination against trans people in West Africa and Cameroon through regional advocacy and awareness raising, to ensure trans specific healthcare and HIV care & treatment through sensitization of healthcare workers and key state and non-state actors and to improve the capacity of individuals and organizations through small grants and capacity strengthening initiatives.

alQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society

Active at every level of society, alQaws supports resilient LGBTQ communities and leads a critical social engagement with sexual and gender diversity.

Founded in 2007, alQaws is the leading Palestinian LGBTQ organization working directly with Palestinian civil society to create a sustainable, persistent, community-based social change movement. Active at every level of society, alQaws supports resilient LGBTQ communities and leads a critical social engagement with sexual and gender diversity, challenging deep-rooted misperceptions and sparking new, locally relevant discourse. alQaws’ programs in three primary work areas–individual support, community, and social change–empower community members to become engaged in activist, arts and cultural, education and institutional initiatives; they also organize community members to spark change in LGBTQ-inclusive health, education, and media. Their activities include a National Hotline with a new team dedicated to supporting transgender individuals, regular “Hawamesh” community gender and sexuality discussion events, a training-of-trainers program that prepares a new generation of community organizers working with influential civil society partners, and direct in-depth training of leaders in key Palestinian institutions, such as human rights and youth organizations and schools. In 2013, alQaws embarked on an innovative initiative to reach Palestinian youth through alternative music and pop culture, an effort that brought together over 70 community members, well-known Palestinian singers, and music technicians to collectively write and produce gender and sexuality focused songs. Since then, they have continued to increase the visibility of their creative vision in new local media-focused cultural change initiatives, and expand their reach into established professional and educational sectors. Today, alQaws runs working spaces and active programs in diverse locations that unite fragmented Palestinian communities together across city hubs and rural areas. Drawing from a wealth of activist, professional, and creative capacities, alQaws is promoting alternative approaches to sexual and gender discourse and visibility in Palestinian society, paving the road for a social justice movement in which LGBTQ rights are recognized and accepted as integral to broader sexual and human rights.  

Mujer y Mujer

Mujer Y Mujer pushes the traditional meaning of “woman.”

Mujer Y Mujer was created in 2003 to challenge the social and political visibility of lesbian women, united by the vital need to build community, develop leadership and influence against a backdrop of violence, discrimination and privatization of both public spaces as the body and sexuality of women. Mujer Y Mujer pushes the traditional meaning of “woman.” Since 2009 they’ve championed the leadership of bisexual women and transgender people. They also celebrate ethnic and generational diversity while their community initiatives strengthen the working class. The organization is run by volunteers due to lack of resources for LGBT groups in Guayaquil and LBT activism in particular. They strategically promote the creative role of women and LGBTI + in the integral development of more just and equitable societies; enhancing their political voices from their desires and resistances. Their slogan: Free to Be, Decide and Demand, represents the 3 axes of their philosophy.


Tajassod is a trans embodiment project that focuses on bringing forward information for trans individuals to try to have a healthier and safer future in their “homes”.

Tajassod is a trans embodiment initiative that focuses on bringing forward information for trans individuals to try to have a healthier and safer future in their “homes”. It functions through two strategies: information availability and practical networking. The idea of Tajassod was born in November 2016 out of a need for information and a support network for a trans activist when he started hormone treatment. Despite being an established activist with access to language, internet, lawyers and organizations that cater to trans individuals, many gaps arose. Tajassod’s goal is to enable the trans community to have access to transition procedures, treatment and information locally without them having to migrate/travel from Lebanon to seek friendly and informed medical interventions. It also aims to increase visibility for trans-organized initiatives and integration of trans politics in the civil society in Lebanon. Tajassod is housed by Qorras, which is a relatively new group aimed at politicizing the access to information and creating spaces for mutual learning around gender and sexuality.

Insight Public Organization

Insight Public Organization was created in 2007 by a group of feminist lesbians and trans activists to build a platform for “others,” people marginalized within the LGBT community and broader society.

Insight Public Organization was created in 2007 by a group of feminist lesbians and trans activists to build a platform for “others,” people marginalized within the LGBT community and broader society. Over the past decade, they have established their work nationally as a strong, and well-respected feminist and LGBTQ movement organization that engages in educational, advocacy, cultural and social programs to meet the needs, represent and protect the rights of LBTIQ communities. In recent years, they have also made important gains building public support with broader civil society and social justice allies. For example, they established an Equality Festival in 2014 to be a platform for all oppressed social groups. Despite homophobic threats and right-wing counter-organizing, over the last couple of years, Insight’s Equality Festival has become the most visible cultural festival in Ukraine, traveling to all 5 regions of the country with active participation and mobilization from non-LGBT groups. They are working to achieve new and strengthened legal protections from SOGI-based discrimination and violence, end the currently violent and discriminatory procedures for gender-affirming surgeries and treatment and establish a rights-based legal regulation for intersex people to receive medical help if needed.