A new report uncovers a secret SADF project to ‘cure’ homosexuals by giving them sex changes Paul Kirk Sex-change operations, medical torture and chemical
castration were perpetrated on national servicemen in a bizarre programme to cure “deviants” during the apartheid era. To this day dozens of victims of the programme are crippled and disfigured, stranded halfway between male and female by incomplete sex-change operations performed by the South African Defence Force (SADF). Many more are sterile after being chemically castrated. A number of the victims have committed suicide.
The exact number of conscripts who were involved is not certain, but surgeons told the Mail & Guardian that about 50 sex-change operations were performed a year between 1971 and 1989. The number of victims, gay rights campaigners say, could have been hundreds. The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality is trying to calculate the exact number of those involved in the operations. In what was a top-secret project during the apartheid years, psychiatrists assisted by chaplains scoured each intake of national servicemen, hunting for suspected homosexuals.
Those identified as homosexuals were quietly separated from their comrades and sent to ward 22 of Voor- trekkerhoogte
military hospital for screening and a programme of “rehabilitation”. Some of those who could not be “cured” with drugs or psychiatry were given sex- change operations or were chemically castrated. These details have emerged from an M&G investigation and from a report commissioned in part by the Medical Research Council (MRC). At the time the experiments were conducted, the chief psychiatrist at Voortrekkerhoogte was Aubrey Levine, one- time head of psychiatry at the University of the Orange Free State. Levine was reportedly interested in “aversion
therapy” and applied it to the “deviants” he collected. A percentage of those homosexuals that could not be “reformed” were offered sex-change operations. Many of these procedures were not completed, leaving a number of mutilated conscripts to fend for themselves. A recent study entitled The Aversion Project: Human Rights Abuses of Gays and Lesbians in the South African Defence Force by Health Workers during the Apartheid Era documents the process in great detail. The study, which has yet to be made public, was conducted on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Archives, the Health and Human Rights Project and the MRC, as well as the National
Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. It fleetingly
mentions army sex-change operations. The report goes on to explain why the sex- change operations were embraced with such vigour: “The medical profession is reputed for pathologising any form of behaviour. For example, it is known that the military has a history of doing sex-change operations – many sex changes were done in military hospitals. One has to ask to what extent this was experimental. Although in any medical advancement there is always a cutting edge of experimentation, in total institutions there is a captive audience. The question then reverts to one of ‘informed consent’ and whether the choices people are given are limited because they cannot say ‘no’.” The victims were all conscripts. Security at ward 22 was tight and few secrets emerged. However, at least one death was reported entirely due to the refusal of medical staff to render assistance to a conscript who had taken an overdose of drugs in an attempt to kill himself.
This death is documented in the Aversion Project report and also in the Health and Human Rights Project’s submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Surgeons who served under the SADF confirmed that a number of patients died on the operating table while having their sex changed. The actual causes of their death were never made public. The number of deaths, the sources say, was probably very low. The operations were performed at a number of military hospitals around the country. One victim contacted by the M&G was operated on at Voortrekkerhoogte, while in another case the bulk of the operation was performed at the Tempe military hospital. According to gay rights activists and victims of the operations, those given the operations were told to keep quiet about them and encouraged to set up a new circle of friends. They were offered a completely new identity.
One victim of chemical castration, a former national
serviceman by the name of Jean Erasmus, took his own life last year after contacting Joanne Muller, at the time a representative of Amnesty International in Pretoria.
Erasmus had been in touch with Muller for some years and had carefully documented his maltreatment at the hands of Levine.
Muller told the M&G that Erasmus apparently committed
suicide after giving shocking details of his maltreatment to her. Erasmus claimed that, among other things, he had been forced to participate in the gang rape of Angolan women. Erasmus also told Muller that servicemen were forced to take large amounts of hormone drugs in an effort to “cure” them.
Levine’s other tool in his crusade against “deviants” was electric-shock treatment, a name by which he refuses to call his treatment. It was a crucial element in what he termed “aversion therapy”. Although research has shown Levine’s psychiatrists did not personally conduct sex-change operations – they were not qualified surgeons – he and his team allegedly referred conscripts who could not be “cured” of their homosexuality to army surgeons who would perform the operations.
The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality is still fighting to have at least one of the army’s sex-change
victim’s operations completed. Representatives of the coalition said other victims had made private arrangements for the completion of the operations, while the army had agreed to finish off others. It was not only male conscripts who were targeted – the army also weeded out suspected lesbians from the armed forces and gave them the same treatment. One of these victims, who was born a female, confirmed this week she had joined the defence force, had been identified by Levine as a homosexual and offered a sex-change
operation. This procedure was started – but stopped halfway when the programme was terminated.
The victim has both sets of sex organs, and like several other victims has been attempting to have the army finish the operation for some time. Her efforts have as yet been futile.
The Aversion Project report quotes Trudie Grobler, an intern psychologist in the psychiatric unit at 1 Military hospital who was forced to observe an aversion therapy session under Levine’s guidance. A woman – a suspected lesbian – was subjected to such severe electric shocks that her shoes flew off her feet. Speaking in Afrikaans, Grobler is quoted as saying: “I know that he did aversion therapy with gay men. And I do not know of a case where it was a success. You know that he showed the gay boys men and then shocked them. Then he showed them women. I presume that the same strength, method and everything was given to the woman. It was traumatic. I could not believe how her body could handle it.” Erasmus, who was chemically castrated, is also mentioned in the study – at the time he was still alive and was called “Neil” to protect his identity. Neil, although he knew he had been chemically castrated, did not know what other drugs he had been given. He suffered severe depression and other mental ailments. The report notes: “As a result of the research process, Neil has touched the core of his anger and humiliation. He decided to explore litigation. Assisted by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, an internist and a human rights lawyer, they tried to find out exactly what treatment he was given. He was given no information at the time of treatment, and it appears that all records of his treatment have been destroyed. The doctor who treated him pleaded amnesia, so without evidence the case could not proceed. What are the possibilities of other compassionate doctors trying to reverse the treatment, when no records were kept?”
Erasmus is quoted as saying: “It is my personal wish that if I could have my way, to have him scrapped off the roll, even if it is symbolic as he’s at the end of his career. But I would like to, if I could achieve anything, I would like … if I could sue this man, I would sue him for every cent he’s got – if I could.” The psychiatrist he refers to is not Levine, but another doctor currently practising in the Cape and whose name is known to the M&G. In a submission to the TRC, the Health and Human Rights Project detailed Levine’s shock therapy – but not the sex- change programme. Levine – with a number of other doctors – was served notice that he had been named as a possible violator of human rights, but by that time he had fled to Canada to escape South Africa’s high crime rate. He did not apply for amnesty, nor was he granted amnesty – meaning he may be prosecuted for his apartheid-era
activities. However the truth commission made no effort to serve Levine with a subpoena. Levine said this week that at no time was electric shock treatment given under his care. Speaking from his office in the University of Calgary, Levine said: “Nobody was given electric shock treatment by me. We did not practise Russian communist-style torture. What we practised was aversion therapy. We caused slight – very slight – discomfort in the arm by contracting the muscles using an electronic device. Some people used elastic bands to shock patients. Nobody was hurt and nobody was ever held against their will. At no time were patients forced to submit to treatment.”
Levine also emphatically denied any gender reassignment
operations were performed by the military. He claimed that the political atmosphere at the time was such that reassignment surgery was simply not tolerated or even considered.
He also emphatically denied that truth drugs were ever administered. Said Levine: “Narco-analysis was used, I give you that, but it was used in very isolated cases and only to help treat post-traumatic stress. Narco analysis was used to help get victims to talk about the trauma they suffered.”
Levine, who works in the forensic department of the University of Calgary, lamented that he was driven from South Africa by the high crime rate. The final straw, he said, was when his daughter was held hostage during an armed robbery at his Johannesburg home. Said Levine: “I want to reiterate, nobody was held against his or her will. We did not keep human guinea pigs like Russian communists, we only had patients who wanted to be cured and were there voluntarily. But anyway I have no doubt the Mail & Guardian will distort all of this.”
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) representative Major Louis Kirstein said Levine had resigned from the military some time ago and that the present head of psychiatry at 1 Military mospital had no knowledge of Levine’s activities, nor did present staff at the hospital. Kirstein said: “The South African military health service is more than willing to investigate or assist any investigation into the alleged actions by Dr Levine in the past. The SANDF is bound by the constitution and will not tolerate, condone or conceal any alleged infringements of the constitution by its members. Furthermore the SANDF is an equal-opportunity
employer and does not discriminate against any person on grounds of race, gender, religion or sexual persuasion.”
The Daily Mail &Guardian’s gay website Q is hosting a chat on this issue at www.q.co.za