In South Africa, patrons visit a predominantly gay tavern in Kwa-Thema, east of Johannesburg.
The township was known as a haven for black gays and lesbians, but activists say that the death
there in late April of Noxolo Nogwaza highlights an alarming rise of homophobic violence in some
of the country's most impoverished communities.
Reporting from Kwa-Them—
The thick smoke, from a fire kindled by a traditional healer, covers the faces of those who have come to grieve, bringing new tears. Noxolo's aunt, Nonyaniso Nogwaza, knows that she is here, somewhere, beyond the smoke that will bleach out the evil that still lurks.
Noxolo died because she dressed like a man and wasn't afraid of anyone, friends and supporters in this township say, one of the latest of a series of brutal rapes and killings of black lesbian women that has stunned this country. South Africa, an avowedly tolerant "rainbow nation," is one of the few in the world allowing gay marriage.
In one particularly appalling case this month, a 13-year-old girl was gang-raped because of her sexual orientation, according to South Africa's Justice Department.
Noxolo's name means peace. She loved soccer and Kwaito music, a kind of hip-hop, and grew up hanging around boys and behaving like one. The 24-year-old lived with her grandmother and her closest confidant was her aunt, Nonyaniso. The two never spoke about Noxolo's sexuality; it wasn't necessary.
"I knew about it, the way she was acting. She didn't tell me exactly, but I saw. The way she dressed and the way she liked to associate with guys. She dressed like a guy."
Noxolo left the Bar Lounge in this township east of Johannesburg in the early hours of Easter, April 24. She was attacked in a lane behind a supermarket, about 50 yards from a group of houses. She was raped with a broken bottle, repeatedly stabbed with broken glass and battered with bricks. Her teeth were knocked out and her head partially crushed by a cinder block.
"I don't want to cry. I'm not going to cry," Nonyaniso says, remembering her niece's body, stripped of dignity. But the tears escape. "They killed her like a dog, like an animal. She was so wonderful. I lost a friend. I lost a sister."
Nonyaniso used to buy her niece men's clothing. Now she is taking care Noxolo's two children, Lindiwe, a 4-year-old girl, and Sipho, a 7-year-old boy.
South Africa has a liberal constitution promising equal rights for all, and cosmopolitan Cape Town has a thriving gay scene. But for black lesbians living in urban townships, it's little better than in many other countries on a homophobic continent.
In a society that is deeply religious, traditional and highly patriarchal, lesbians and gay men contradict the dominant view of African manhood.
Across Africa, gay people are threatened, humiliated, raped, beaten, killed, jailed, outed in front-page newspaper stories, condemned by preachers as un-Christian and by politicians and traditional leaders as un-African. In Uganda, a measure setting forth the death penalty for homosexuality was proposed, but recently that penalty was dropped from the bill, which is yet to go to the parliament.
In South African townships there's a crime dubbed "corrective rape," rape to "cure" lesbians, and sometimes gay men and transsexuals. They are told they are being taught a lesson: how to be a real woman or man, survivors say.
"They say, 'We'll sort you out. At the end of the day, you are a woman. You have to find a man.' They feel that being gay is not African and we are bringing another culture to the community," says Ntsupe Mohapi, 38, a gay activist in Kwa-Thema who has been threatened and taunted, but not attacked.
Besides Noxolo, two other openly gay women have been killed in Kwa-Thema since 2008. All played soccer as well as, or better than, most men. All of them dressed in a masculine style.
"Homosexuality is seen as an import from the West. We are seen as betrayers of culture and betrayers of tradition … some kind of imperialistic force that is attacking the African way of life," says Fikile Vilakazi of the Coalition of African Lesbians. The group's Western funding reinforces suspicions.
Surrounded by stretches of dry grassland and factories, Kwa-Thema's streets echo with car horns and music. Unemployed people walk aimlessly, in seeming slow motion. A graffitied rock urges people to "PRAY NOW." A dilapidated factory has been converted into a church. A man sits on an upturned bucket, selling bananas. Girls in tight tops, miniskirts and leggings trail about the streets. Vast liquor warehouses serve the poor.
For years, Mohapi says, the township was so tolerant of homosexuals that gay people moved from other parts of the country to live here.
"The history here was that gays and lesbians were not afraid," says Mohapi, who wears a cap and jeans with fashionable holes. She was raised in an extremely religious family and suppressed her sexuality until she was 20, fearing her parents' reaction. She moved out of her family home and wrote her mother a letter, explaining. The two never speak of it, although they are very close.
"We used to gather at Three One, or Thoko's place," she says, referring to two private houses where gay people were welcome. "It was mostly about fashion, laughing, drinking and dating. That's where you would find a partner."
It's not clear why Kwa-Thema's tolerance evaporated. Vilakazi says there's been a backlash against South Africa's liberal post-apartheid constitution among traditional leaders, conservative elements of the ruling African National Congress and some members of the community.
Muntu Masombuka, 28, is a gay man living in Kwa-Thema. In 2006, he was walking home from church when three burly men attacked. They dragged him into a house, stripped him, tied him up, beat him and raped him.
"They said if I am a woman, they will show me what men do to women. They said, 'Boys don't walk like that.' My mind was shut down. I cried until I couldn't cry any more. I went home naked."
He knew his attackers, but says police refused to accept his report of rape.
"They said, 'How can they rape you if you are a man? You should have fought back as a man.' They said, 'Come and listen to this boy. He says he's been raped. How can you be raped if you are a man?' I was furious, because they were humiliating me."
He sometimes sees his attackers in Kwa-Thema. "If I see them I run away, or change directions."
Noxolo and the other two lesbians killed in the township were slain during the period from April into June, as the nights got colder in the Southern Hemisphere and the wood fire smoke hung low.
In April 2008, soccer star Eudy Simelane, 31, an openly gay woman who had played on the women's national soccer team, Banyana Banyana (The Girls, The Girls), was gang-raped, stabbed repeatedly in the neck, stomach and thighs and killed in what human rights and gay activists said was a hate crime.
She had loved playing with a ball as a toddler, and from early childhood kicked a soccer ball around the streets with the township boys. One of the few photographs of her shows her with cropped red hair, wearing a No. 13 jersey.
Girlie "S'Gelane" Nkosi, 37, who played soccer with Simelane on a local team, the Tsakane Ladies, was stabbed in the back in a Kwa-Thema nightclub in June 2009. Nkosi, according to her memorial program, was "arguably the most visible lesbian of Kwa-Thema," a fighter and a campaigner who spoke out against hate crimes against gays and lesbians.
Police and judges have been slow to link the killings of the openly gay women to their sexual identity, activists charge. The judge in the trial of Simelane's killers did not make the connection, saying instead that she was killed because she knew her attackers.
Like most black women who live openly as lesbians, Mohapi, the activist, is often taunted on the streets by groups of men. A day or two later, she makes a point of visiting the homes of the ones she knows, trying to educate them about homosexuality.
"I tell them there's no choice. It's like being black. I tell them that hate speech leads to hate crime: You might just talk, but others might take it seriously and kill me."
"They say, 'Can't you change? Or just lie low and don't show yourself in public?' I say, 'No, because I'm fighting for the next generation. If I stay quiet, it will go on forever.'"
She does it even though she's afraid she will be killed one day.
Noxolo's aunt, Nonyaniso, visited her grave the day after the cleansing ceremony to speak to her. She knelt in the dirt, imploring her niece not to give up.
"I just bowed down and talked to her, praying and praying that Noxolo must fight. She mustn't just relax. She must show who killed her. I'm waiting for a dream. Maybe she will come in a dream. But she's quiet."
Unemployed, selling clothing from her home to scrape money together, she has little for her own 9-year-old and worries how she will pay the school fees for her niece's children, born of brief previous relationships with two men.
Noxolo's son, Sipho, knows that his mother died. Lindiwe, the little girl, thinks she is visiting friends and will be back.
But when they are old enough, Nonyaniso will tell the children how their mother was killed. She will tell them why.