Where Are the Sexual Rights?
Sexuality remains a field of conflict in many countries. LGBTI activists hoped for a promising new development agenda. So far, they remain disappointed.
Unfortunately, hate crimes against sexual minorities are still a common global phenomenon. National governments are often not willing to speak up against homophobia or intolerance, since they feel they might lose ground with their constituencies. Legislation rarely guarantees basic rights for sexual minorities. In South Africa, the law, and even the constitution, guarantees homosexual citizens a lot of rights. Nevertheless, the reality in a lot of townships looks very different. Hate crimes against lesbian community members have become a common phenomenon. Instead of keeping silent and hiding themselves away, a lot of the affected women have chosen to speak up, organize and fight prejudices. They organize street parades called ‘prides’ to raise their visibility and challenge intolerance. Irish filmmaker Laura Fletcher has met a lot of these activists and devoted her documentary “African Pride” to them. The movie just won the “Green Rose for Best Documentary with a Global Message” at the Jaipur International Film Festival in India. We spoke to Laura Fletcher about the daily lives of homosexual women in South Africa and about the challenges of making an authentic, but respectful documentary.
Homophobia is often associated with African countries like Nigeria or Uganda. South Africa is rarely criticized, since it is seen as more of a role model because of its legislation. Could you explain the relevance of homophobia in South Africa?
We open the movie with the fact that South Africa was a pioneer in how it approached legislation regarding same sex relationships. It was the first country in the world to include it in the constitution and certainly the first and only to date in Africa to legislate in favour of same sex marriage. In terms of human rights, South Africa started at a high point. When I lived and worked in South Africa, I became aware of reports of attacks on lesbian women defined as hate crimes. This was the actual terminology used. There was absolutely no escaping the viciousness of these attacks.
There was absolutely no escaping the viciousness of these attacks.
What was so interesting was that there were calls for the government to do something about from it inside South Africa, and a perceived sense of reluctance. It sort of inspired me to look at the rights as they exist on paper and the reality that is lived. More specifically, I was interested in what people try to do about it themselves. This movie is not so much about homophobia. It is more about the ways people are mobilizing and trying to affect real change. The people I wanted to feature were people who had experienced hatred first hand and were feeling unprotected, despite the fact that the laws of the land were written to protect them. They want to challenge that disconnect.
Obviously you cannot look at the issue in complete isolation. One of the organisations I worked with, Sonke Gender Justice, was founded by men. They see gender based violence as new frontier, as the new apartheid. They do workshops with men on the inherited post-apartheid violence. Under apartheid, violence was a tool of power, so it is very hard to unlearn this violence. The reasons people are violent are multifaceted and include poverty, education, history, patriarchy, and culture.
The language I was hearing was that being a lesbian or being a gay man or transgender is something un-African, some sort of Western concept that does not belong.
What was presented to me was: if you introduce women as lesbians in a context of huge unemployment, where sexual violence and patriarchy are tied to particular cultural identities, this can elicit a huge backlash. These issues have layers: You might be living in a township, you might be unemployed, you might be a woman, and then you might be a lesbian. The more barriers you put up to what is perceived as normal, the harder it is. The language I was hearing was that being a lesbian or being a gay man or transgender is something un-African, some sort of Western concept that does not belong. When people are dealing with their own issues of poverty, violence and insecurity, their sympathy for those being targeted for their otherness may not be as forthcoming.
Obviously lesbians are not the only ones being targeted, but their position is complex and deserves to be examined on its own. A lot of activism is connected, so that one group motivates another to take action. In the film, you will see that we talk to organizations that identify themselves as black, lesbian organizations, like Forum for the Empowerment of Women or Free Gender. But you will also see organisations like Ekurhuleni Pride Organizing Committee (EPOC), which is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex organisation that is really inclusive. Yet EPOC was born out of the murders and rapes of two lesbian friends and a member: three women in one township in four years. They mobilised and formed this organisation because three lesbian community members were killed in four years. These crimes shocked people into action. They took a look at intolerance and included other groups as well. These activists groups have taken these cases on, are going to court and having marches and prides, and are also now looking at transgender people being targeted. Those attacks are incredibly brutal and often laced with the symbolism of hatred. I am reluctant to go into detail because sometimes you feel that by just repeating the circumstances of these killings may feed into the propaganda of the perpetuator.
I was inspired to make the movie by the bravery of these women speaking out against it.
The level of disrespect shown to the victims makes it clear that these are message crimes. At the same time, these crimes have motivated a lot of people to take action for more tolerance. I was inspired to make the movie by the bravery of these women speaking out against it. The subject has been covered before, but often in a manner that reinforced victimhood. These crimes have been described as “corrective rapes”, for example. Except for honour crimes, I cannot think of any other crime that is described using the logic of the perpetuator. You will not find this term in my documentary. I did this story because there are these amazingly brave people who have been motivated by their own experiences of hurt and pain, who are making themselves known in their communities and are really visible.
So far we have talked a lot about the negative aspects. How do these negative aspects affect the daily lives in the LGBTQI community? How should I imagine gay and lesbian life in the townships?
People seem to feel like they have to hang together. These organisations are campaigning organisations, but they are also places where people feel like they belong, places where people feel safe. People identify taverns and bars where they feel safe because they know the owner is gay or gay-friendly. A lot of these murders happen when people are on their way home from a tavern. In the case of Zoliswa Nkonyana, it all started because she attempted to use the women’s toilets in a bar and a group told her "you are a tomboy you should not use the girls toilets".
We have to keep in mind though that it is sometimes hard to be a lesbian in a conservative town in the US, too.
There is gay life, but it happens mostly in lesbian, gay, transgender networks within townships. These networks have grown because people need a space as much as they need a voice. So I saw huge positivity and huge love and I hope that it comes through in some parts of the movie. But as one activist said: "It is hard being a black lesbian in a township." We have to keep in mind though that it is sometimes hard to be a lesbian in a conservative town in the US, too. Life does not exist without different challenges in different places.
I found one scene really shocking: A guy was talking about how he would murder his kids or even his parents if they were gay. The guy was smiling, like it was something normal to say. How representative is a statement like that?
There are obviously a lot of voices in the documentary. Later a guy says: "We can't let this violence target our sisters. We have to stand together." So even in the documentary, you get a variety, and it depends a lot on where you are at. In KwaThema where they had a number of killings, I felt that people would not really engage. People were unhappy that their township was becoming linked with this form of violence. I felt that people closed up a lot. Then I went to Soweto where that interview happened, and people did not hold back with how they felt. A lot of people are opposed to the violence, but still feel that being gay is something un-African. That’s why I put those viewpoints in, because they are representative of the opinions you come across.
Prejudice finds all kinds of expressions and it is certainly not exclusively a South African issue.
Some people feel that their identity is being watered down by a sense of otherness being introduced. But you hear that same language in other places, such as Eastern Europe or Russia. Even in the UK, you find that with people who are concerned about migrants. Prejudice finds all kinds of expressions and it is certainly not exclusively a South African issue.
Your movie gives a voice to the activists and victims themselves; there is no additional background storyteller. How did you convince the activists to be part of your movie? Did you face scepticism for being a journalist or being white?
I think there absolutely was scepticism about me and I understood it, 100%. For a number of reasons: If you want to tell a story as a journalist or documentary filmmaker, you need someone who tells the story for you. So we need people to be willing to share. I was looking at a movement where people had chosen visibility. They had chosen to speak rather than to be silenced. There is no voiceover in the documentary, no foreign disembodied voice that explains how people should view what is happening. As a filmmaker, that is difficult, since you need the story to be clear, and you cannot connect the dots by explaining it yourself. But this was not my story at all. I was the person who carried the camera, and I wanted to provide a platform for people to tell their own stories. There were stories I left on the cutting room floor because I felt that the people were too vulnerable. Those were difficult judgements to make, but I think it is a better film for it.
TV is our language, and we have to imagine the impact - the onus is on us.
There are examples of reports or documentaries that focus strongly on victimhood, where footage of a woman immediately after she was raped has been used, for example. Photographs of a lesbian woman, who had been raped just hours before they were taken, were also used as part of a petition. She essentially became the face of this violence in South Africa for a while. People would stop her in the street and she hated it. Even though she knew the photos had been taken, I do not think she was prepared for what it would mean for her personally. We have to understand that this is the filmmakers’ or reporters’ responsibility. TV is our language, and we have to imagine the impact - the onus is on us.
I was very straight with everyone. I am still in contact with them and they know what they are getting with me, I think. Journalists’ expectations that people will tell them their stories are difficult. I will give you the worst example: A journalist walked into a meeting of one lesbian activist organization and asked anyone who had been raped to put her hand up. These are the footsteps I am following in, so it is easy to understand why some people did not tell me their stories right away. I just had to stand on my own credentials. Thankfully people got to know me and seemed happy to participate because they knew that I was not willing to just throw people under the bus, so to speak.
How is the LGBTQI community organized in South Africa? Your documentary focusses a lot on the black organizations in the townships. What about the more urban organizations? How do the black and white organizations interact?
There are large city prides. Johannesburg has the longest running African pride. Then there is the Cape Town pride and Durban pride. Those are very big events. Some activists question these events because they say that there is an ongoing struggle as opposed to a mere cause of celebration. These are not just black activists, but LGBTI activists from all backgrounds. A number of years ago, the Johannesburg pride was disrupted when a group called "1 in 9", a group that focuses the issue of rape, laid themselves across the road to promote a moment of silence to remember rape victims in the LGBTI community. It led to an argument that involved one of the organizers physically removing them from the road. So there was this clash of whether or not the activism fit in with the bigger urban prides.
There have been initiatives to bring the different groups together. The Gay Pride flag of South Africa, designed by Eugene Brockman, is one example. I travelled with him and his partner Henry Bantjez at one point as they were trying in a sense to unify the discussion and involve different communities. It was really good. They did this sort of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” tour of South Africa, where they travelled around in a mini bus with drag artists in full costume all the time. They travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg two years in a row. I could have done a whole documentary on that. There was huge positivity about the activism of this Gay Flag tour bus, but it is sort of complicated when you have a bus of mostly white drag queens driving into the townships. Nevertheless there certainly was comradery and the feeling of solidarity between the groups.
I would say that there is of course homophobia in the white community and there have been attacks. But people are safer where they have gates and cars.
There is also amazing research being done at the universities on hate crimes, such as a hate crime working group. I would say that there is of course homophobia in the white community and there have been attacks. But people are safer where they have gates and cars. A lot of the attacks I documented happened when people were on their way home at night on foot. Unfortunately money plays a part here too. I also thought it was important not to speak to representatives who were speaking on behalf of people. I wanted to speak to people speaking on their own behalves, people who were involved in activism as well. That’s why we did not include any prominent external commentators, but gave voice to the activists themselves.
Interview by Frederik Caselitz
Photos by Melanie Hamman-Doucakis