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Source: IRIN

JOHANNESBURG, 7 December (IRIN) – Black homosexual men and women are increasingly encountering a variety of hate crimes in South Africa, despite legislation protecting the rights of sexual minorities.

In 1996 South Africa became the first country on the continent to adopt a constitution protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and legally recognised same-sex marriage on 1 December 2006.

However, Prof Vasu Reddy, chief research specialist at the Gender and Development Unit of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), said although the constitution worked on paper, it did little to guarantee acceptance or tolerance, especially for gays and lesbians living in townships.

"This intolerance is translated into verbal abuse, psychological abuse or other subtler forms of victimisation, which fall short of being punishable under current law, but there are increasing reports of physical expressions of homophobia being on the rise," Reddy told IRIN.

In February this year, a gang of young men stoned, beat and stabbed to death Zoliswa Nkonyana for being a lesbian, in front of her home in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town.

A young woman nearly bled to death in September 2005, after being attacked on the Forum for Empowerment of Women float during the annual Johannesburg Gay Pride march, and in the previous year a 22-year-old lesbian was raped in Meadowlands, a township south of Johannesburg.

Although these cases received much media coverage, not much seems to have been done to counter such violence.

As part of the annual ’16 Days of Activism for no Violence against Women and Children’ campaign, the HSRC and the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre, in the east-coast port of Durban, jointly hosted a novel day-long roundtable discussion on gender-based violence, hate speech and homophobia against black lesbians.

"Many of our sisters are still brutally assaulted … ‘corrective rape’ has become a common practice for young men apposing homosexuality, and who are set on ‘curing’ gay women of sexual deviance and an ‘un-African’ way of life," said Reddy.

Years of international research has shown that between 5 percent and 10 percent of people in every community are lesbian and gay, yet it remains popular belief that homosexuality is uniquely European or American, according to OUT, a local non-governmental organisation supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

"Sexual orientation has nothing to do with one’s skin colour or geographical location. The fact is that being in or outside Africa does not determine whether one is LGBT," a spokesman for the group pointed out.

Michael Van Schalkwyk, a young information technology professional, in the past made full use of the nation’s constitution by openly celebrating his homosexuality until he was faced with the harsh reality of being gay and living in a black township.

"It was at a party just outside Pretoria [in Gauteng Province] that I witnessed two local gay guys being threatened with rape for being ‘stabane’ [derogatory Zulu word for gay]. My perception of what our constitution meant … [in terms of protecting] gay people was changed forever," he said.

Van Schalkwyk said unless you lived in the affluent suburbs of South Africa, you did not benefit from the new "gay laws".

"Gays are slowly becoming more prominent in society, but we still have a long way to go," Reddy said. "Events such as this roundtable discussion are important, and must be sustained, in order to mainstream the issues around violence against sexual minorities and social transformation."