There is a misconstruction of sexuality in the mainstream. It says the only thing lesbians ever think about is sex. Lesbians are always harping on about our sexual rights. The thing is that as a lesbian: if you talk about sex, you are sex mad – but you are recognized as a lesbian. If you talk about climate change or poetry or violence against (heterosexual) women – you are not recognized as a lesbian. But if you talk about climate change or poetry or violence against (heterosexual) women and make it clear that your analysis is a lesbian analysis – you are sex mad.
How do we, therefore, talk about lesbian human rights and not be pigeon holed as “sex-mad lesbians”? I think probably there is no easy answer. Let’s look at some examples of abuses of lesbian human rights and then come back to these questions. But first, we must look at lesbian sexuality, and how patriarchy specifically oppresses lesbians.
Female-centered sexuality. The problem is that our oppression is based on our sexuality. It is a given in patriarchal societies that women not be able to have any freedom around sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure (and here I am not speaking about pornography – that is men’s idea) is so totally unthinkable in some instances that the idea of two women deciding to have sex, to have a sexual and emotional relationship is enough to send them straight to hell. Such women should feel shame. If they don’t then they are pressured to feel ashamed. As a result some lesbians commit suicide, including double suicides. Such women should be called unnatural. It is obvious that women would only do such a thing if they were desperate, hence the line: All she needs is a good fuck. And out of that all the above human rights abuses flow: corrective rape; gang rape; torture; forced marriage; forced pregnancy; diagnosis of madness; diagnosis of neglect of children; punishments such as beatings and murder. And if none of the above works, pull out the camera and turn lesbians into porn stars. Hetrosexualize lesbian sex, and sell it to men.
‘Corrective rape’ and shame. Rape, torture, silence, shame and hatred all combine so that no one ever hears of the violations of lesbians’ human rights. It’s invisible; it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Like lesbians don’t exist. In late 2010, I received an email about Millicent Gaika, a South African lesbian who had been subjected to ‘corrective rape’ ” on 2 April 2010 by a man she knew. The image of her bruised face and body as well as her recounting of what had happened to her, created the momentum for a global campaign against ‘corrective rape’. It’s an abusive term that refers to the rape and battery of lesbians to cure them of lesbian existence. The man who raped, beat and attempted to strangle Millicent Gaika said this:
I know you are a lesbian. You are not a man, you think you are, but I am going to show you, you are a woman. I am going to make you pregnant. I am going to kill you.
Millicent Gaika is not the first South African lesbian to be attacked in this way. In 2008, Eudy Simeland, a star of the South African women’s football team, was gang raped and murdered.
In 2009, in an interview Zakhe Sowello from Soweto, Johannesburg, said,
Every day I am told that they are going to kill me, that they are going to rape me and after they rape me I’ll become a girl … When you are raped you have a lot of evidence on your body. But when we try and report these crimes nothing happens, and then you see the boys who raped you walking free on the street.
By March, more than 140,000 people signed the petition to uphold the constitutional rights of lesbians to state protection. By mid- June this had reached 939,905. But the list of victims of violence is not new. So while I am pleased to know that finally these violations are coming to light, it’s been a long wait.
South Africa is the only country in the world to constitutionally protect the rights of people based on sexual orientation. I think this has been a critical factor in the success of this campaign, although I think it took enormous courage on the part of Millicent Gaika, to present this as a breach of the South African constitution.
How is it possible that violence against lesbians is such a non-headline? Because, although the Avaaz petition was signed by a lot of individuals around the world, it has not reached metropolitan newspapers. If you search for Millicent Gaika, the reports mostly come from activists and bloggers.
Is corrective rape a new occurrence? No, it is not. Here are some other documented examples that I have found in the literature over the last almost decade of research:
- On 8 July 2007, two South African lesbian activists, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa, were murdered.
- On September 29, 2004, FannyAnn Eddy a lesbian activist from Sierra Leone was found dead. She had been working in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association. A few months before her death she made a plea for protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to the UN Commission on Human Rights.
- In Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s Tina Machida was violated at the instigation of her parents in an effort to ‘cure’ her of her lesbian existence. She writes: “They locked me in a room and brought him every day to rape me so I would fall pregnant and be forced to marry him. They did this to me until I was pregnant.”
- In 1976 in Chile, Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes was tortured by the Pinochet regime. The torturers imply that her torture is all her fault (not unusual in situations of torture). If only she would do what is best for her, she would not have to suffer. In fact, he, the torturer, will help her by raping her, by showing her what a real man can do for her, how what she needs is ‘a good fuck, from real men’. The same justification as that given by Millicent Gaika’s rapist.
Linguistic silence and lesbian invisibility. The problem of invisibility of lesbians in India, for example, is indicated by the omission of the word lesbian from the glossary of an otherwise useful handbook, A Guide to Your Rights: Legal Handbook for Sexual Minorities in India. The glossary does include bisexual, homosexual and transgender. I point out, however, that this is not exclusive to Indian organizations, since the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in the USA in 2005 had precisely the same kind of omission from its list of keywords for conference presentations. The keyword list included Sexuality, the Body, Identity, Homosexuality and Transgender, but not Lesbian. Many Australian women’s and gay organisations habitually leave out lesbians. This is about shame.
Like Judas, people and organizations deny their association with lesbians.
What is the relationship between the social and cultural development of women and men and the bodily experiences of women and men? Lesbians are not only marginalized physically and politically, but also because of a kind of inclusivity that continues to screen out lesbian existence. I am referring here to the invisibilizing that happens under the rubric of terms such as queer, sexual minorities, LGBTI, transgender, same sex, homosexual, diverse sexualities and non-conforming sexualities. There is a need to be able to speak about sexuality in broad fora, as suggested by these terms, but there remains the continuing need to highlight the ways in which different sexualities defy the hegemonic ideology. Lesbians resist the dominant hegemonic position in multiple ways – some of which are specific to lesbians and not LGBTIs who will each have their own specific forms of resistance. I suggest that marginalization occurs whenever an all-encompassing term is used.
Shame and brittle silence. At the ‘softer’ end, San Francisco LGBT International Film Festival, Frameline, pulled a short 15 minute science fiction film, The Gendercator, by lesbian filmmaker Catherine Crouch from its film festival program in June 2007 because of the film’s purported ‘transphobic’ content and because the transgender audience said they would boycott the festival if it was shown. In a petition to the organisers, Lenn Keller, Max Dashu, Joey Brite and Martha Shelley, wrote:
A lesbian voice is being silenced here. In the current climate of fear, we find it necessary to state that critiquing or asking questions about issues affecting our communities should not be confused with judgment or condemnation or, in this case, ‘transphobia’.
Many have complained about the lack of lesbian content in the festival, and Frameline has chosen to silence one of the few voices.
The Gendercator is a science fiction film that tells a satirical futuristic story of the forced gender realignment surgery on butch lesbians. In this world ‘gender variants are allowed to choose their gender, but they must choose one and follow its rigid constraints’ (Crouch, 2007). Some among the transgender audience read this as a positive story, but lesbians who do not wish to inhabit any body other than the one they have, feel the violence of such a story. It resembles the forced marriage of young heterosexual girls in India, the forced pregnancy of lesbians in contemporary Zimbabwe, the corrective rapes in South Africa and transgender operations in Iran. Crouch continues,
Our distorted cultural norms are making women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world. This is one story, showing one possible scary future. I am hopeful that this story will foster discussion about female body modification and medical ethics.
The withdrawal of The Gendercator was a violation of lesbians’ right to create images of lesbians that reflect our own experience – not as they are presented by individuals, groups or companies outside the lesbian community. Who will you support? The Iranians mobilizing operations on the grounds of gender identity disorder, or the lesbians who argue against such medico-centric solutions?
The issue of identity is well put by a Peruvian lesbian (name undisclosed): ‘When I speak of my right to my own culture and language as an indigenous woman, everyone agrees to my self-determination. But when I speak of my other identity, my lesbian identity, my right to love, to determine my own sexuality, no one wants to listen’.
Indian lesbians face the same problem, as is indicated in the Caleri Report (Campaign for Lesbian Rights). The word ‘lesbian’ is: ‘…so loaded with fear and embarrassment and prejudice, a word shrouded in silence, a whisper that spoke of an identity that must be hidden from others, that frightening word that dare not cross the threshold’.
Using the word ‘lesbian’ provokes what Indian writer Maya Sharma calls a ‘discourse of catastrophe’ (Sharma 2006: 38). This is a softer form of the lack of respect for lesbian civil and political rights, but no less damaging than the idea that lesbian existence is a nonsense or the ‘symbolic annihilation’ Hopkins (2008) alludes to in her study of the representation of lesbians on New Zealand television.
Part of that brittle silence is one’s own self-censoring behavior which is particularly evident in cultural settings that are not one’s own. The silence shifts between ‘personalized silence’ within a social, political and cultural context as well as the self-silencing of the person coming in from outside that context.
Are there any answers?
Consider the question: Who is the human in human rights?
When the phrase ‘human rights’ is used, what image comes to your mind? For each of us it is probably different, but think of the campaigns you have seen. In my lifetime I have seen photographs used in many campaigns including images of Tibetan monks, men tortured in prisons from South America to the Middle East, Asian girls, young African men, refugee mothers with children in the Sudan and the Balkans – and others. On rare occasions, I have seen a gay man. Except for the campaign in support of Millicent Gaika successful campaigns focused on lesbian human rights are as rare as hen’s teeth. Indeed at times human rights appear so male focused that many have asked, ‘Are women’s rights human rights?’ Lesbians face at least double, and frequently multiple, barriers to their rights being considered human rights.
Here are some suggestions as to what can be done:
Use the word lesbian often. Nowhere in this paper have I suggested that other groups be denied their rights, but I call for the rights of lesbians to be recognized as well. It is clear that violations of lesbians’ human rights intersect with violations against people on the basis of ethnicity, sex, cultural background, ability/disability, religion, class, caste and poverty, as well as sexuality. But when the issue of torture is raised, who speaks of the violations of lesbians? Who speaks of the intra-family violence meted out to lesbians? In Beijing in 1995, the demands about lesbians were removed so as not to offend the Vatican and Saudi Arabia. Whose rights count? Does anyone care for the rights of lesbians?
Do not silence lesbians even if you disagree. Argue rather than boycotting. Silencing is insidious. It works wonders in keeping the abused away from public view, away from public consciousness. If you ignore the plight of lesbians who will be next? If a film like The Gendercator is dropped from the program where is the ‘constructive dialogue’?
Accord lesbians the same human rights as others. When an Indigenous or Muslim woman asks for women-only space, with rare exceptions (that are then considered violations), these wishes are rightly respected. When gay men call for their own space, their right (is rightly) defended.
Do not put lesbians in the “too hard” basket to wait until after the revolution. The revolution will never be finished. It is an ongoing struggle and lesbians must be a part of it. For years lesbians have been active in many campaigns for social justice everywhere in the world, but how many activists in those campaigns give support to campaigns for social justice for lesbians?
Do not contribute to the atmosphere of fear or bad publicity. As Indian researcher Maya Sharma says, there are ‘… many silences that fall in between the uttered and the unutterable’.
Be proud of the lesbians in your life. Support them, celebrate with them. Cry with them when necessary. Protest with them when lesbians’ rights are violated.
Dr. Susan Hawthorne is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Arts & Social Sciences at James Cook University, Townsville. She is a novelist, poet, academic, publisher and aerialist. She has been involved in the Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Movements for more than thirty years and is a member of the Coalition of Activist Lesbians (COAL). In 1996, she was a Winner of the Hall of Fame Award in the Rainbow Awards for contribution to the Gay and Lesbian Community. Among her books are The Butterfly Effect (poetry, 2005), The Falling Woman (novel, 1992), Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity (non-fiction, 2002) and eleven anthologies. Her collection, Earth’s Breath (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Judith Wright Poetry Award and her sixth book of poetry is Cow (2011).
Christine Chika Moses 2010 “Corrective Rapes in South Africa: A Lesbian War Zone” The West African Pilot http://www.thewestafricanpilot.com/2010/04/30/corrective-rapes/).
Kelly, Annie. “Raped and killed for being a lesbian: South Africa ignores ‘corrective’ attacks”
Guardian. Thursday March 12 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/12/eudy-simelane-corrective-rape-south-africa
Pers. Comm.,‘Candlelight Vigil Honoring All African LGBT & HIV+ Heroes who have been Murdered’ This statement was jointly issued by Less AIDS Lesotho and the committee of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender African immigrants residing in U.S. Email received 1 July 2007. See also Morgan and Wieringa (2005).
Mathope, Esau, ‘FannyAnn Eddy’s Alleged Murderer in Court.’ 17 June 2005. http://www.mask.org.za/article.php?cat=sierraleone&id=490. Accessed 15 Jan 2008.
Human Rights Watch, 4 October 2004 cited in Morgan, Ruth and Saskia Wieringa, Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female same-sex practices in Africa (2005) 20.
Eddy, FannyAnn, ‘Testimony by FannyAnn Eddy at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Item 14 – 60th Session, U.N. Commission on Human Rights’ (2004) http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/10/04/sierra9439.htm
Amnesty International, ‘Appeal Cases: Zimbabwe: Threats to Homosexual Rights Activists.’ In Why Are We Still Waiting: The Struggle for Women’s Human Rights. Country Dossier: Zimbabwe, March 1998: E 43. (Amnesty International Library, London).
Machida, Tina. ‘Sisters of Mercy.’ In Reinfelder, Monika (ed.) Amazon to Zami: Toward a global lesbian feminism. (1996) 118-129.
Hawthorne, Susan, ‘Ancient Hatred and Its Contemporary Manifestations: The Torture of Lesbians’ The Journal of Hate Studies 4 (2006) 33-58. Online at http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/againsthate/Journal4/04AncientHatred.pdf
Rivera-Fuentes, Consuelo and Linda Birke, ‘Talking With/In Pain: Reflections on bodies under torture’ (2001) Women’s Studies International Forum 24, (6): 653-668.
Hawthorne, Susan. ‘The Silences Between: Are Lesbians Irrelevant?’ Journal of International Women’s Studies. Women’s Bodies, Gender Analysis, and Feminist Politics at the Fórum Social Mundial, 8 (3) April (2007) 125-138. http://www.bridgew.edu/SoAS/jiws/April07/Hawthorne1.pdf
For updates, go to: http://www.allout.org/brenda; I received the news about David Kato’s murder from Pambazuka News: http://pambazuka.org/en/category/action/70432 ‘Brutal murder of gay Ugandan human rights defender David Kato’, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) 2011-01-27, Issue 514.
There are rare exceptions including the case of Pegah Emambakhsh. See ‘URGENT: Don’t Deport Pegah Emambakhsh’ ASSIST, 16.08.2007. http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2007/08/378415.html
Tom, “Mexican Gays Get Asylum: Canada’s 1st Lesbian Refugees’ Toronto Sun, 8 August, 2001. An interesting aside, this article on lesbian refugees is indexed under gay men!
Darya and Baran, ‘Interview with an Iranian Lesbian in order to convey her protest to the world’ Iranian Queer Organization (2007) 2. http://irqo.net/IRQO/English/pages/071.htm Translated by Ava. Accessed 17 August 2007.
Jared Polis, ‘The Closet of Fear: The systemic execution of gays and lesbians in Iraq’ (2007). http://www.squarestate.net/showDiary.do;jsessionid=4F4D21ED01EE37CF34BCFF8BF73D8C94?diaryId=4972. Accessed 20 December 2007.
Personal communication: Petition, Keller, Dashu, Brite and Shelley, June 2007.
Crouch, Catherine, ‘The Gendercator’ on Catherine Crouch’s website. http://catherinecrouch.com/mainwebsite_html/filmsDetail.php?pageID=gendercator. Accessed 28 December 2007.
Moschetti, Carole, ‘Conjugal Wrongs Don’t Make Rights: International Feminist Activism, Child Marriage and Sexual Relativism’ PhD Dissertation, Political Science Department, University of Melbourne (2006). For Zimbabwe see Machida (1996); for Iran see Mangez (2005).
ILIS Newsletter 15 (2) 1994.
Caleri (Campaign for Lesbian Rights). Khamosh! Emergency Jari Hai! Lesbian Emergence: A Citizens’ Report (1999) 17.
Sharma, Maya, Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Underprivileged India, 2006, 38.
Hopkins, Alison Julie, ‘Convenient Fictions: The Script of Lesbian Desire in the Post-Ellen Era. A New Zealand Perspective’ (2008 PhD, Victoria University of Wellington) 276.