OutRight Action International formerly known as International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Human Rights For Everyone. Everywhere.


South Africa

There is a Voice that is Silent from Africa

By Leigh Ann van der Merwe, Director, S.H.E.

There is a voice that is silent from Africa… a voice no one hears, despite its loud scream. There is a faceless person, despite standing in a crowd of millions. That person has a name, a face, and an identity. These are the transgender women in South Africa. Strides have been made for the rights of transgender people in South Africa, yet many of the issues affecting black, impoverished transgender women go unattended. This is where the idea of a feminist collective dedicated to addressing the issues of transgender women in South Africa originated and S.H.E. (Social, Health and Empowerment feminist collective of transgender and intersex women of Africa) was established.

Leigh-AnnSmUnlike our white privileged counterparts who may navigate and transition due to their economic statues, Black Transgender women are often poor and marginalised. Access to hormone treatment is generally perceived as a privilege instead of a human right to treatment. There are many barriers to gender affirming services in the public health service in South Africa. Only two public facilities provide care of this nature. Both currently have a 26-year waiting list. Private medical practitioners only treat on a pay-for services basis.

Knowing your rights are intrinsically linked to privilege is painful for us and divisive for our movement. We can’t hide or choose a particular type of privacy as we endure stares, harassment and violence within the public systems of South Africa. In post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa, we must talk about these differences across race and class divides.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that transgender people of colour in South Africa are at heightened risk of experiencing violence and hate crimes. The violence transgender woman of colour experience in South Africa is broad and varied. We’ve read articles and seen videos documenting physical violence. But, systemic violence is silent, invisible, and violates transgender women as they try to access services. Often, transgender women are categorised as men and included in MSM/ HIV research and services. This prevents many transgender women from accessing health services. Transgender women face increased barriers to finding employment, which often leads them to sex work. There they are subject to arbitrary arrests from police. It is within this vicious circle that they become vulnerable to sexual violence and rape. And, it is heightened when, in police custody, they are locked up with cis-gender men (i.e. individuals assigned as male at birth and identify as male).

As we advocate for recognition, we face both internal and external challenges. S.H.E has chosen a feminist framework in which to organise. Our struggle plays against the backdrop of a racially challenged South Africa, and, as underprivileged South Africans, we fight many isms (classism, racism, chauvinism, patriarchy). The feminist maxim of equality in substance and process is of paramount importance to our work. Yet, still we must justify using a feminist framework for our analysis. We must justify a womanist approach2 to our work, and we have to explain why we want to advocate for our rights within mainstream women’s efforts. Some argue that transgender women cannot use a feminist approach to organising, based on the notion that we enjoy male privilege. But the violence and discrimination that we suffer is based, precisely, on the gender stereotypes we transcend. These conceptual difficulties are part of why it is not easy for projects such as ours to raise the resources to function effectively. S.H.E runs programs informed and led by transgender women. The leadership of the organisation is comprised mostly of transgender women from the continent. We strive to make our employment policies transgender women specific. These ideals support a mission and vision, underpinned by human rights, equality and freedom for the very people we wish to serve. To implement this mission requires adequate resources.

Well-meaning researchers, and scholars who take for granted that transgender women can be producers of knowledge, but not subjects of our own struggle, compound the challenges of South African transgender women. Many come to South Africa to research and document the experience of transgender women, but do not link these studies to advocacy strategies or for change rooted in our communities. When they leave, nothing is altered in advancing the rights of transgender women. I am that transgender woman featured in so many Ph.D dissertations, HIV research, and documentation of violent experiences. I have a face, I have a name, and I have an identity. There needs to be a better effort at forging relations between activists and those supporting our efforts from the West, based on the understanding that African problems have to be solved by African people, with African solutions. We transgender women must be seen in our racial, class, and other diversities. Ultimately, it is we who are the relevant stakeholders in our struggle for equality and rights.

S.H.E Coordinator and Founder Leigh Ann van der Merwe was born in Ugie, Eastern Cape of South Africa. Growing up as a gender questioning person, she struggled to conform to typical male gender codes and as a result always felt left out both in family life and at school. Leigh Ann’s first gender challenge was attempting to play on the Ugie High School Netball team. Netball is a female sport code in South Africa. She struggled through high school and graduated from Blackhealth High School in 2000. She enrolled for an LL.B degree with the University of the Western Cape in 2001 but did not complete due to financial difficulty.

Through another trans woman that Leigh Ann was introduced to trans activism in 2007. Her experience of activism includes being a candidate in the Transitioning Africa Exchange Program from 2010 to 2011; She was a fellow in the Open Society/Austrian American Foundation/Transgender Centre of Excellence program in Salzburg, Austria, October 2011 and presented at a transgender consultation at UNAids in Geneva, November 2011. She holds a seat on the United Nations steering committee for transgender people in the Global South.

Leigh Ann reviewed a number of gender literature resources produced by other NGO’s and was part of the study team on a UNFPA report on the challenges of sex workers in the East London area. She is actively involved with NGO’s dealing with gender & women’s issues, HIV and public health. She is the secretary of the board of an East London based NGO working with orphans and vulnerable children. She presented two papers at the first ever IGLHRC sponsored, Gender Dynamix Transgender Health and Research Conference  November 2011. In 2012, Leigh Ann received an award from the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in recognition of her work as a Women’s Rights Defender. She holds a certificate in Community Journalism from the University of South Africa. She is passionate about feminism and women’s rights.

Yesterday’s Vigils for David Kato in New York and Cape Town

Demand Justice David Kato
Demand Justice David Kato

New York City
IGLHRC would like to thank everyone who came out to the vigil and procession to honor slain Ugandan activist David Kato yesterday in New York. We estimate the crowd was over 200 people in New York. On an icy February night, that says a lot about how much David’s death has impacted us all.

The speakers included Amanda Lugg, Rev. Pat Bumgardner, Cary Alan Johnson, Val Kalende, Daniel Dromm,Christine Quinn, Cheikh Traore, Rev. Kapya Kaoma, and Pastor Joseph Tolton. Note, part of Val’s presentation included text from the blog SpectraSpeaks.

We would also like to thank all the cosponsoring organizations, of which there were over 40, and the inspiring and courageous speakers who brought context and meaning to this critical moment and gave voice to the LGBT movement’s grief and anger in the wake of David’s death. In particular, IGLHRC would like to thank Val Kalende, of Freedom and Roam Uganda, for traveling to NYC at this difficult time, for so powerfully naming this tragedy, and for helping to guide us in our grief and activism. As Val said, “David belongs to all of us now.”

Val Kalende, Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG)
Val Kalende, Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG)

Event Details and Sponsoring Organizations

Letter delivered to Uganda House on behalf of 25 organizations

More pictures available here.

See Joe.My.God for more photos and coverage of the vigil and procession.


Cape Town
In Cape Town, the vigil hosted by IGLHRC, Gender Dynamix, and AIDS Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) was attended by over 70 people. We gathered in the IDASA building – a venerable institution from the days of the anti-apartheid struggle. It was a fitting place for a memorial for a hero from this struggle. The message yesterday was one of fierce determination to continue struggling for our rights.

Below is a video of the candle light vigil, attendees singing of a song from the anti-apartheid days – which was and still is often sung at funerals: Senzenina – “What have we done.”

Archbishop Tutu: “I would never worship a homophobic God”

There has recently been almost unprecedented attention in the US mainstream media to issues of homophobia in various African countries. Attention to ending discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is for the most part welcome. However, it is often too easy for voices from outside of Africa to be dismissed as being promoters of an un-African or western “homosexual agenda.” It is far more significant for an African voice to be reminding people of the need to protect human rights for everyone. And when so much of the hatred and vitriol against LGBT people is driven by claims to religion, it is even more significant when that African voice is a prominent faith leader.

desmond tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and recipient of IGLRHC’s 2008 OUTSPOKEN award, has long been a vocal advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Two years ago, Archbishop Tutu accepted the award at IGLHRC’s A Celebration of Courage event. This award was given in recognition of his leadership as a global ally to the LGBT community through his outspoken and public support, which has contributed substantially to advancing the rights and understanding of LGBT people everywhere.

Achbishop Tutu continues to demonstrate the values and commitment for which this award was given. He has added an important faith-based voice against the discrimination and hate towards LGBT people seen in many places in Africa – what Tutu describes as as a “wave of hate … spreading across [his] beloved continent” – and often driven by religious fundamentalists. In his Op-Ed in the Washington Post on March 12, he noted that in many African countries, including Uganda, Senegal, Kenya and Malawi:

“People are again being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms. Men have been falsely charged and imprisoned in Senegal…In Malawi, men have been jailed and humiliated for expressing their partnerships with other men…Kenyan religious leaders, I am ashamed to say, threatened an HIV clinic…because the clerics wanted gay men excluded.”

He challenges the notion that LGBT people are somehow not African, noting that they are, in fact, an integral part of African families and communities. To those who spread hatred and discrimination in the name of religion and God he calles this an offense – saying that “Gay people, too, are made in my God’s image. I would never worship a homophobic God.” In remarks that highlight the reality of politicians who are manipulating the basest fears of people to hide their own failings of leadership in meeting people’s needs, he calls on politicians and leaders to demonstrate true leadership to “stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.”

We hope that those across the continent who praised Tutu for his role as a religious leader in resisting apartheid will also hear the analogies he draws between the exclusion and hate of apartheid and that of homophobia. As he states in his Op-Ed:

“[W]e struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.”

This is a call to action and leadership from someone who has once again shown what true leadership is about.

IGLHRC thanks the Archbishop for his unstinting leadership and for his unequivocal and passionate call to end the hate against LGBT people in Africa.

Read the full Op-Ed »

Read about this year’s A Celebration of Courage awardees »

Caster Semenya runs “like a man”?

Caster Semenya has done the unthinkable in women’s sports: she runs “like a man.” Besting her sister runners by a longshot in the 800 meters in the World Championships in Berlin a few weeks ago, she drew the instant condemnation that girls across the decades have drawn whenever they are too smart in class, too forceful in the board room, too strong in the gym, or too accomplished in the workplace.

You don’t have to be a world class runner to recognize this moment – whether you came into womanhood at the height of the women’s movement or the hip-hop era, not much has changed. Women exceeding gendered expectations of achievement are often forced out of the game at the suggestion that their drive to accomplish exceeds the boundaries of genteel femininity. The only worse epithet than being called a “feminist” these days is to be called a man.

From Babe Zaharias to Hillary Clinton, women who refuse to be limited by what-has-been must endure a public that is deeply ambivalent about women trailblazers.

She also stands in a long line of gender variant people who threaten the very definitions of “man” and “woman” and call into question the ways that we organize our sports, our toy stores, and even the pink and blue cribs in our nurseries.

Over and over this week, I have read various commentary that distinguishes between “sex,” a supposed biological fact and “gender” which is socially constructed. The Olympic committee, according to this wisdom, must conduct a multi-layered examination – physical, psychological, and hormonal – to determine if Semenya is “objectively,” “biologically” female. For while the characteristics we arbitrarily assign to masculine and feminine genders obviously vary greatly across cultures, races, and centuries, the biology of sex is put forth as a fixed, unwavering truth.

All of which is non-sense. Social beings embedded in certain cultures, traditions, and scientific eras create the list of “qualifiers” for being biologically female or male. I find it interesting that I couldn’t find the all-important “list” in any of the dozens of articles I read this week on Semenya’s trial. A vagina apparently isn’t sufficient to qualify a person as biologically female. Testosterone figures into the calculus – how much is too much? There’s a mysterious, undefined psychological aspect to the testing. What characteristics trump others in the quest to qualify as biologically female?

Shortly after the medal ceremony, Semenya submitted herself to a public exam on her “sex,” dimming a moment that should have been a shining celebration of her stunning achievement. In response, the South African government, family and friends stood behind their gender non-conforming daughter, noting that a long history of racialized sexism in the Olympics includes a chapter in which efforts were made to separate all Black women athletes from competing against their white counterparts because Black women were regarded as not-quite-female due to their race.

While whispers of high levels of testosterone and ambiguous genitalia light up the blogosphere, we must ask ourselves – why isn’t anyone listening to Caster Semenya? She was raised a girl, has competed as a girl for years before this great victory on the international stage, and most importantly — Semenya identifies as a woman.

If there’s no other lesson that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights movement has taught the larger culture over the past forty years, I hope it is this one: the right to self-determination is paramount. Gender variant people around the world are watching Semenya’s struggle with a mixture of pride, anxiety and hope. No authority – religious, parental or in this case Olympic – should trump one’s right to self-determination, identity and expression.

by Jamie Grant
Director of the Policy Institute at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Exporting Homophobia

by Cary Alan Johnson

Despite the global recession, the U.S. is promoting and aggressively selling a costly product overseas: homophobia. Uganda, one of America’s closest partners in Africa, is currently home to vicious and violent attacks on its citizens based solely on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The high cost in terms of individual privacy and freedom of expression is mounting daily. Regrettably, much of the inspiration and call for these attacks is coming directly from these shores.

In March 2009, three American extremists flew to Uganda’s capital city of Kampala to be featured speakers at a three-day training seminar focused on the “homosexual machinery wreaking havoc on individuals, families and society.” Attendees, including Ugandan teachers, pastors, and parents, were bombarded with provocative lectures, slide shows, and glossy materials that offered advice on how to fight the “gay agenda” and “cure” gay people from their sexual orientation.

The three Americans—Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge—work for groups such as the Extreme Prophetic Ministry in Arizona, the International Healing Foundation in Maryland, and Exodus International in Florida, all of which declare “homosexuality” to be sinful and advocate converting gay people to heterosexuality—an approach that is widely repudiated and even condemned by professional organizations including the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.

Lively, whose book, The Pink Swastika, makes the discredited claim that gays helped run the Nazi party, was quoted at the seminar as stating, “You have a gay movement in Uganda that is operating at a high level…this gay movement around the world has a handbook that they use and that is what the Ugandan gay movement is using now. You must be ready to stop this gay agenda.”

Emboldened by the Americans’ vilification of gay people, the seminar’s Ugandan host organization, Family Life Network, immediately instigated a witch-hunt. The group mobilized “ex-gays” to appear on television and radio and announce the names, addresses and places of employment of supposed gays and lesbians in Uganda. The effects have been immediate and devastating. At least five people have been arrested and charged with “having carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” Violent attacks of anyone suspected of being gay are occurring on the streets of Kampala with more frequency and intensity. Local tabloids, such as The Red Pepper have jumped into the fray by printing lists of men and women accused of being gay and lesbian.

Equally disturbing are calls for violence against gay men and lesbians from a coalition of the country’s religious leaders representing the Church of Uganda, the Catholic Church, and the Muslim Supreme Council. A recent public outing of “who is gay in Uganda” took place at the church of veteran Ugandan homophobe Martin Ssempa, who is a close friend of the head of America’s Saddleback Church, Rick Warren. In 2007, Ssempa organized a rally in which one of his guest speakers encouraged the murder of all gay and lesbian people by means of starvation. Now in 2009, Ssempa himself has publicly announced the names and places of employment of gay men.

This homophobic campaign is intent on getting new legislation passed in Uganda that will expand already harsh penalties against consensual same-sex relationships (the Ugandan Penal Code already carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. How much more severe can a penalty be?) Petitioners are calling for an expansion of that law to make it illegal for people of diverse sexual orientations to meet, to share ideas, and to engage in self-help programs to prevent HIV. These types of laws will open the door to all manner of blackmail, police harassment, employment discrimination and violence by state and non-state actors as well as attacks on freedom of expression, association, and privacy.

When asked what he would say to a gay person excluded by the church, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he would apologize: “You are members of this family.” Every member of the human family deserves to be treated dignity and respect. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Ugandans should be able to live their lives in peace without the boot of the state on their necks or the fear of a homophobic lynch mob gathering outside their homes or workplaces. U.S. extremists are purposefully stoking the flames of homophobia in Uganda and inciting human rights abuses. In contrast, the U.S. government should stand up for justice and let Uganda know that any law that curtails basic human rights is wrong, that arresting people because of whom they are perceived to love is a crime, and that inducing violence and hatred is never a solution for resolving social conflict.

Cary Alan Johnson is Executive Director of The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

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