Cape of fear and gay loathing

It is nearly four years since 19-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyane was stoned to death by a Khayelitsha gang because of her sexual orientation. With her murder trial set to resume in November, township-based members of Cape Town’s gay community have told the Mail & Guardian that they still live in fear.

Mpumeza Runeyi is a 26-year-old lesbian who, like Nkonyane, grew up in Khayelitsha. She was forced to move out after life became “hell”.
Now she works at the HIV/Aids unit of the Cape Peninsular University of Technology, where she says her colleagues are supportive.

Runeyi became attracted to women when she was 18. Although she tried to be discreet, word quickly spread in the township that she was a lesbian. A group of men monitored her every move and camped outside her house. They would knock on the door at 3am, threatening to rape her and “teach her how to be a real woman”.

Eventually she realised she had to leave the place she had always called home and start a new life. Now she lives in the relative safety of Muizenberg.

But the nightmare is far from over. Two months ago Runeyi was attacked on a train as she travelled back to Khayelitsha with her partner to visit family. Although the two women “never even held hands”, male passengers started to yell insults when her partner sat on the floor of the crowded carriage and leaned against Runeyi’s legs, instead of “sitting on a man’s lap”.

One man pulled out a Bible and accused the women of being “bewitched”. “We feared they might do something bad to us, so we kept quiet and alighted at the next station,” says Runeyi.

She says that such harassment is part of daily life for lesbians in Khayelitsha. Many prefer to stay silent and “live with the pain”—even when they are repeatedly gang raped. Police investigations take so long that the victims fear they will be murdered before the cases reach court. Often the rapists are their own neighbours.

Many of Runeyi’s friends seek escape through drugs and alcohol which, ironically, makes them more vulnerable to attacks.
“Dudu” (not her real name) has survived a gang rape and a stabbing, but says the worst trauma came from her mother’s rejection.

“I didn’t hide from her. I told her about my sexual orientation and she told me to choose whether to go on with ‘my stupid thing’ or forget calling her mother.”

Dudu’s mother is now dead. Her father is an elderly diabetic. “I don’t want to admit that I am a lesbian because it might kill him,” she says.

It’s not only township lesbians who continue to suffer because of their sexuality. In Mbekwezi, near Paarl, the M&G met Xolani Mvula. It’s a while since he was last attacked for being gay, but the scars on his face tell of his journey.

Mvula is doubly vulnerable because he is also disabled. He points to a scar on his lower lip.

“I was beaten up while I was walking with two gay friends. Fortunately, they managed to run away, but I couldn’t,” he says.
Mvula decided to go for circumcision after he was ridiculed as a “coward” by other township men.

“When word got around that I was going for it [circumcision], men gathered in large numbers to see if I am different,” he recalls. After his five-week stint in the bush, many in the community expected he would marry but he refused to deny his sexual orientation.

Instead, Mvula decided to become a community volunteer, hoping this would encourage others to accept him. He says attitudes are slowly changing. Once there were only three openly gay men in Mbekweni township. Today there are more than 20.

But “the hate experience hasn’t gone completely”. That’s why Mvula and his friends will be closely watching the Nkonyane trial when it resumes on November 13.

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