At an informal, unlicensed bar at a house in a remote corner of Soweto, men and women sip lukewarm beer, mingle, flirt and sometimes dance to driving and monotonous kwaito rhythms.
They share a secret.
The bar, called a shebeen in the townships, is one of the places where young, black gay people don’t have to hide who they are, where they can talk openly and find companionship and a safe haven in an often hostile township.
South Africa in 1996 was the first country to adopt a Constitution that protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Under its terms, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to legalise same-sex marriage by year’s end.
Partly as a result, the country has the most open gay community on a continent where homosexuality is usually driven underground and portrayed as un-African — an unwanted legacy of colonialism and white culture.
But legal protection does not guarantee acceptance or tolerance. The reality is often a life of loneliness, fear, rape, violence and sometimes even murder.
”I’ve been raped six times, five times just because I am gay. I was raped by men I know, who wanted to show me what it means to be a woman. They thought it would change me, that it would keep me from being gay,” said a young black lesbian from Soweto who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Human Rights Watch said early this year that lesbians in South Africa face abuse and violence simply for not fitting social expectations of how women should act.
At a township outside Cape Town last February, 19-year-old lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana died after she was chased by a mob, beaten with golf clubs and bricks, and stabbed because of her sexual orientation. No one was arrested, said Donna Smith, the head of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women and a member of the Coalition of African Lesbians.
”We work with black lesbians in the townships. One of the first things we did was organise an anti-hate-crime campaign. At the first meeting we asked how many had been the victims of a hate crime or had first-hand knowledge of one, and everyone in the room put her hand up,” said Smith.
During a Gay Pride march last year, she said the forum’s float was attacked by people throwing bottles because it portrayed homosexuality as a natural part of African culture.
”What is un-African is homophobia,” said Smith. ”Some people believe homosexuality is an idea brought here by the white man. But it has always been here. What the white man brought was homophobia clothed in religious doctrines that we did not have before.”
Anthropologists have found evidence that homosexuality was widely tolerated in many parts of pre-colonial Africa. For example, EE Evans-Pritchard reported that until the practice died out in the early 20th century, male Azande warriors in the northern Congo routinely married male youths who functioned as temporary wives.
In the new, democratic South Africa gay people want to believe their sexual orientation doesn’t matter, said Smith. But to many it still does, so gay people find safety in numbers at places where they know they will be safe and accepted.
At the shebeen, the owner, Gundi Dube — a short, jovial man with a large gold chain inside the open neck of his sports shirt — greets new arrivals at the gate, passing judgement on whether it is safe to let them inside the club’s cramped courtyard.
Dubi, known to all simply as Scotch, greets one new arrival, a woman, with a warm embrace and announces: ”It’s OK, she is one of us. She is a policewoman … but it is OK because she is one of us.”
”This is the new South Africa. We were all in the anti-apartheid struggle together and now nobody cares if you are gay or straight,” said one middle-age man. But then, almost in the same breath, he asks to be identified only as Cassie because he doesn’t want people outside the club to know he is gay.
As he talks he becomes annoyed by Sipho, a tall, thin young man in white jeans and a faded olive drab Eisenhower jacket who dances alone nearby to the loud kwaito music. Sipho tries to convince anyone who will listen that he is really the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi.
”I really don’t like that kind of guy,” said Cassie, after Sipho made crude advances.
”The problem with gay men in the townships is they are so promiscuous. It is killing us. Aids is killing us,” added Cassie, who says he is still mourning the recent death of his partner of 18 years.
South Africa, after India, has the second-highest number of people infected with HIV. In Southern Africa, most transmission of HIV is by heterosexual contact. But a study in Durban earlier this year estimated a third of South Africa’s gay people are HIV-positive.
”I’m HIV-positive because of one of the rapes,” said the young black lesbian who said she had been raped six times. ”I’m just angry. I’m angry all the time. And it is lonely. You are so lonely when you are gay and afraid in the townships.”
In an effort to deal with her rape, fears and loneliness, she said she has turned to writing and poetry.
”The smell of hate never goes away. The thought of betrayal stays and remains within my thoughts, sight, senses and deep within my soul and spirit. It has created continuous and uncontrollable anger. It has filled me with hate. It has made me think and feel I am mad and sometimes it hits me like I am worth nothing,” she wrote in one recent essay.
At the Nunbither restaurant on a busy street in the heart of Soweto, Temba Mabaso drinks cocktails at a table next to the sidewalk and says she just doesn’t care what other people think.
”I struggled for 14 or 15 years with being gay,” she said. ”I am not going to struggle any more. I don’t expect people to love me. But I do expect them to understand me and respect me and to understand that I am not going to go away.”
Smith said in most of the rest of Africa gay life has been driven underground by discriminatory legislation and hostility often fanned by homophobic comments by politicians.
Former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma said in a September speech that same-sex marriages were ”a disgrace to the nation and to God”. He also said: ”When I was growing up a gay would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.”
He later apologised, but the pain he caused lingered in the gay community.
Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and most other sub-Saharan countries. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe fuelled homophobic sentiment by declaring that gays were ”worse than pigs or dogs”.
Daniel Arap Moi, when he was president of Kenya, called homosexuality a ”scourge”. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ordered police to round up and arrest gay people.
South Africa is different, Smith said. The gay community is more visible and vibrant. Because of legal protection, attitudes are changing slowly, step by step. ”But the country still has a long way to go,” she said. — Sapa-AP