Zanele Muholi has a long story of activism. A member of black lesbian organizations during the ’90s, in 2002 the South African photographer co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), which is “the only black lesbian organization that has lasted for long in South Africa, if not Africa as a whole.”
Five years later she left FEW to advance her knowledge at Ryerson University in Toronto, where she worked on the thesis “A Visual History of Black Lesbians in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” One thing is for sure: The picture is grim. Lesbians often suffer “curative rape” — an assault that is supposed to change them into heterosexual women — “from gangs, from so-called friends, neighbors, sometimes even family members,” explains Muholi, who fights for lesbian rights through art. “Some of the curative rapes are reported to the police, but many others go unreported.”
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Despite its gay-friendly legislation, South Africa continues to struggle with homophobia. The abolition in 1991 of apartheid — a segregationist, racist, sexist and homophobic regime instituted in 1948 by the white minority — did not put an end to violence against gays and lesbians. Nor did the 1996 constitution, which prohibits any kind of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation. As a result, gay people, or those perceived to be gay, continue to experience discrimination, stigmatization, and verbal or physical attacks — sometimes lethal.