It was just after midnight when David* left a bar on Yeoville’s (a suburb in Johannesburg’s city centre) busy Rockey Street to make a phone call. He left his friends inside and walked out onto the street alone.
A 28-year-old Congolese man, David has been living openly as a gay man in Yeoville for nearly a decade. So when a group of men silently walked towards him, he knew what was about to happen.
The men quickly had him on the ground, kicking him in the ribs, face, groin and back. The blows stung. Helpless, he curled up into a ball, waiting for it to be over.
Around him, the air was thick with each blow, his lungs felt heavier and his breathing slowed. Hopeless, he gave up almost immediately on trying to shield his body as their black boots struck him, crunching and cracking.
“I decided not to fight back, that just isn’t me. I hate violence. I just prayed for them to stop and, eventually, I guess they’d had enough and they just walked away, laughing and talking loudly.”
He heard voices in the distance and the steady beat of loud music from the club above him. He started to cry, suddenly afraid that his tears would spur his attackers on, causing them to inflict even more pain on his already broken body.
“Every day I live in fear that I will be attacked again,” said David, months later from the safety of a coffee shop in another area, away from the city centre. His decision to live openly as a gay man was not an easy one. And it has come at a high cost.
It was the physical attack, and its brutality, that changed him the most, forcing him for the first time to try and hide his sexuality from the homophobic gaze of his neighbours and to spend more time away from Yeoville.
I’m scared, nervous. I worry about what will happen if I’m too open.
Once home to a thriving lesbian and gay community, Yeoville and other areas like it are now filled with homophobic attitudes and hatred, effectively cutting out a significant part of their communities- their LGBTIs. With little to no structural support in these areas, people are forced to either rely on one another and face possible condemnation, or struggle in silence.
They cannot rely on the police for assistance, as many of them are illegal immigrants and believe that regardless of their nationality, they would not be helped.
South Africa, are we really ahead of the rest?
Set against the backdrop of the most liberal of African countries when it comes to LGBTIs, South Africa has a complex and diverse history and relationship with LGBTI rights.
On the surface, South Africa has been a leading nation in advancing LGBTI rights. It was the first country in the world to recognise LGBTI rights as human rights in its Constitution, and one of the first to recognise gay marriage.
However, despite this, the attitudes of many South Africans are deeply homophobic. Gay people, in poorer areas in particular, suffer from a lack of support from the authorities and their families.
Nthanthla* has not yet come out to her family because she is scared of what they will think of her. She says the only support the Yeoville gay community has is each other but “even that is limited”. Many people are not willing to be openly gay and even fewer are prepared to come out as lesbian.
They’re afraid of corrective rape and of being killed
Corrective rape is a hate crime in which someone is raped because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Its intended consequence is to “fix” someone to conform with heterosexuality or gender stereotypes. Although South Africa has laws against any type of rape corrective rape is often overlooked, especially in the country’s poorer areas.
Sarah*, a lesbian woman and a black South African, has lived in Yeoville for five years and said the fear of being “found to be gay or lesbian” is very real, especially for women. Last year she was raped by three men who told her they were trying to “fix” her.
“Men I believed were harmless, but actually, they’re monsters.”
She was walking home one night carrying a plastic shopping bag in her hand when a group of men grabbed her. They took her to an empty park where they shoved her to the ground. One of them held her hands above her head, the other pinned her feet to the ground, the third raped her. Then they swapped places and swapped again before they were done.
All eyes on SA
Although it regularly supports and even mediates an end to conflicts and wars throughout the continent, South Africa has remained reluctant to publicly condemn the string of anti-LGBTI laws that have popped up around it. These include Uganda, Nigeria and Gambia.
But is it really our responsibility to defend the rest of the continent when we can’t even get it right here? Perhaps, in areas like Yeoville, Melville and Hillbrow, which are all at the centre of Johannesburg.
Gabriel Kahn, the youth director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), says this changed when the city “began to fragment” in the 1990s. The white population moved out and African immigrants moved in. The city neglected the CBD and surrounding areas, leading to damage and decay in some parts.
Today, Yeoville and its surrounds are filled with migrants and refugees, mostly from Africa, who have come to South Africa for a number of different reasons, including fleeing homophobic laws and attitudes in their home countries.
“A small minority come because of their sexual orientation and the belief that our progressive laws can protect them,” says Kahn. “But when they arrive here, they often have to stay with people from their home countries and then they don’t really get to escape the homophobia … they might have been experiencing back home.”
Even though South Africa has laws which are meant to protect people based on their sexual orientation, Kahn says this is not always put into practice by authorities who may also be xenophobic in addition to being homophobic.
“When people arrive here they have a double whammy of prejudice,” Kahn says.
Speaking at the release of Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015, South Africa was chastised for its silence on the issue of LGBTI-rights. Graeme Reid, the director of the LGBT programme said that the country’s “diplomacy does not need to be so quiet that no one can hear it”.
This comes at a time when South Africa is being scrutinised for its every move. From allowing the police into parliament and forcibly removing members of parliament, all while jamming cell phone reception and signal, to leaking hundreds of intelligence documents from spy agencies around the world, all eyes are on us.
So, what lies ahead for South Africa’s LGBTI community? The government has remained silent, as its LGBTIs continue to be regularly harassed and viciously attacked for their (personal) sexual preferences and orientation. It may just be up to the youth, who have been the only ones to speak out against ill-treatment and discrimination of members of the LGBTI community. There are a number of organisations, including Gala, that are working towards changing policy, but it is up to the public to ensure an attitude change.
*Names have been changed due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
Note: A version of this article first appeared on Yeoville Now, as part of an in-depth investigation into the area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.**