South Africa will once again rightly honour our nation’s women this August, but we must not exclude transgender and lesbian women, who remain especially vulnerable to hate and discrimination.
The 9th of August is a national public holiday marking the historic women’s protest against legislation that required black South Africans to carry the ‘pass’. On that day in 1956, 20,000 defiant women staged a march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand an end to racist apartheid laws.
Today, in their honour, August is seen as a celebration of women, but the activist roots of the event are often neglected. So too is the harsh reality that women in general continue to face the scourge of gender-based violence. And when it comes to lesbian and transgender women, their struggle against violence, fear and stigma is further hidden from the public consciousness.
These LGBTI women face the double whammy of being both women and so-called ‘non-conforming’ in their sexuality or gender identity. This makes them especially exposed to violence within communities. Most incidents of LGBTI hate crimes reported in the media concern lesbian and transgender women, and their stories are harrowing, tragic and often deadly.
There’s Mbali, a 17-year-old teenager in Potchefstroom, who was raped and assaulted so severely in 2016 that she had to be admitted into ICU. There’s Noxolo Xakeka, who was stabbed to death at a New Year’s Day party in Strand, near Cape Town, because of her sexuality. There’s Kagiso Ishmael Maema, a 25-year-old transgender woman from Rustenburg, whose dumped half-naked and axed body was found in a stream in January. And Joan Thabeng, a transgender woman from Gauteng, who was murdered and dragged though the streets of Mohlakeng in November last year.
Brutalised and dehumanised, these victims are just some of those who are targeted for being members of the LGBTI community, for being “different”, for not being ‘real women.’ There are many more who remain unknown because their cases are either never reported or never identified as hate crimes.
According to the Love Not Hate 2016 report on hate crimes against the LGBTI community, most victims – 91% of lesbians and 77% of transgender individuals – did not report any incidents they experienced in the previous two years to the police. Many said they feared secondary victimisation from officers or being outed to the community if they did speak out.
The report found other appalling statistics, including that 56% of lesbian women and 42% of transgender people lived in daily fear of discrimination. In fact, 43% of lesbians and 33% of transgender people had experienced discrimination or a hate crime in the past 24 months because of their identity. And the violence starts young: 9% of lesbian women and 14% of trans individuals reported being sexually abused or raped at school.
This Women’s Month we must include ALL women in our celebrations and protests. We must affirm that these women are no less women than any others. Until we do, these events and interventions will ring hollow, failing to truly embody the struggle for full equality, liberty and justice for all South Africans.