Many men, thanks to social stigmas, are ashamed to report sexual hate crimes – but they are almost as common as they are against lesbians.
Galip Asvat is a talkative, self-assured and opinionated gay man. He speaks freely about his life, his struggles and his accomplishments, which include co-founding a chain of successful salons in Jo'burg. He is not shy and only lowers his voice when disclosing sensitive information about others – until we begin to speak about his brutal rape.
Asvat was born in Klerksdorp, North West, and lived most of his life in conservative Indian neighbourhoods. In the early 2000s he moved to Hillbrow, which had become a haven for the gay and lesbian community during the 1990s. In the early hours of one morning in 2007, a gang of three men ambushed him in the foyer of his apartment building.
"They thought I was a woman, and when they found out I was a man, that's when they became even more violent," Asvat says. "They kept saying 'stabane … stabane' [Sesotho for 'you're gay, you're gay']. They beat me so badly that my eyes were swollen shut. They hit my teeth out. There was blood everywhere. They even wanted to cut my privates off, but I'm lucky someone disturbed them."
As he recalls his attack, Asvat barely makes eye contact and strays from the matter several times. But, as hard as it is for him, he is adamant that his story must be told to help young people like him.
In 2003, world-renowned photo-grapher Zanele Muholi and activist Kekeletso Khena set out to document the rapes of black lesbian women in a campaign called The Rose Has Thorns. Khena described these rapes as "corrective rape", a practice by which men try to "turn you into a real African woman".
The term has since evolved to include the rape of any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersexual, asexual or queer (LGBTIAQ) person to get them to "behave" the way heterosexuals do. A recent United States state department human rights report says that some gay men and lesbians in Zimbabwe have been raped and forced into heterosexual marriages by people seeking to "convert" them. Instances of corrective rape in countries such as Jamaica and Thailand have since begun to surface in the media – all in an effort to put an end to this brutal practice.
The dynamics are different when people born male are attacked, but one thing remains constant: the violent action of supposedly "teaching" those who deviate from society's patriarchal norm a lesson.
So gay men and trans-women – people who have or are in the process of having their sex changed from male to female – become targets of corrective rape.
Although instances of corrective rape of men are thought to be uncommon, a 2003 study conducted by Out LGBT Well-Being (Out) and the University of South Africa Centre for Applied Psychology (UCAP) discovered a very different story.
"We found that the percentage of black gay men who said they have experienced corrective rape matched that of the black lesbians who partook in the study," says Professor Juan Nel, a specialist in hate-crime criminology at UCAP.
When asked whether this was reflected in South Africa's crime statistics, Brigadier Bafana Linda says he cannot say for certain because rape statistics are not broken down in such detail. Linda, who is the section head of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offenses Investigations Unit in the South African Police Service, adds that, given that most women don't report their rapes, one can only imagine how few men come forward.
"It might have something to do with the stigmatisation. It might have to do with misconceptions that, if they go there to [report it], people might laugh at them," he says.
During the course of an investigation by the youth organisation loveLife's Uncut magazine team, we came across four cases of male corrective rape, but only one person agreed to have their story published.
"I never reported my rape [to the police]," says Asvat. "I didn't want my family to find out because that is like [embarrassing] for them. I dealt with it myself and with the help of my friends." Nor did he have any confidence in the authorities. "I once reported a robbery to the police thinking maybe they will do something, but they didn't."
Reporting rapes can prevent HIV
But his fear of being ridiculed by authorities and the community had dire consequences: he believes he contracted HIV from one of his attackers. This is something that could have been avoided if he had undergone preventative antiretroviral treatment within 72 hours of the rape incident. This HIV prophylaxis treatment is available free of charge in the public health sector to rape survivors who report their rape.
Linda says it is very unfortunate when a rape survivor does not come forward because they fear discrimination, especially as all police are trained to handle sexual offences, as required by the Sexual Offences Amendment Act. He encourages rape survivors to report discriminatory behaviour by police to station commanders.
"Yes, there is more work to be done within field services in terms of sensitising police towards issues of sexual violence, but it is even more important for civil society to address them. The issue of stigma doesn't stem from the police service but from the larger community," he adds.
A good start to addressing corrective rape would be recognising it for what it is: a hate crime. This is the sentiment of Phindi Malaza, advocacy officer at the Forum for the Empowerment of Women. He says the Equality Act, passed in 2000, only protects the public against hate crimes based on race and sex – not sexual orientation.
"On paper we have freedom – the right to live how we see fit. But this is just on paper and not on the ground," Malaza says. "These attacks are a message [of intolerance] to the entire [LGBTIAQ] community, and we get this message clearly."
Nel believes that attackers should be the receivers and not the senders of this message. "Strengthening hate-crime legislation will send a clear message to society that such crimes will not be tolerated."
Earlier this year, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe said government is preparing to strengthen its response to hate crimes, including hate speech. Linda is part of the working group tasked to make this happen. In consultation with the LGBTIAQ community, they are currently drafting a proposal for a Bill to address corrective rape and hate crimes, as well as establishing a national helpline to address these issues.
Until such a time that these policies are passed by Parliament, gay men and trans-women like Asvat will have to "man up" – whether they choose to or not.
Four years after his rape incident, Asvat decided to keep quiet about it any longer: "I started to speak out about it. There is no sense in [cooping] it up inside. You have to deal with the situation. Speaking out about it makes you stronger and helps you to face the situation. It's better than keeping it inside and hiding from people for the rest of your life."
Angelo Louw is editor of loveLife's Uncut magazine. This exposé features in the coming issue of Uncut, South Africa's biggest youth magazine. It will be available at loveLife youth centres, adolescent and youth-friendly clinics and schools nationwide from Monday April 14