Archived single content

“I was a prisoner” - hbs projects for strengthening the LGBTI community in South Africa

LGBT written with tealights on purple ground

“I was a prisoner

locked in the closet

I had to escape

it was me not you.

“I refuse to be filled with fear. I felt that hiding and being scared is killing us as lesbians”

(Extracts from texts by Aphiwe Mikana, in: Rivers of Life – Lesbian Stories and Poems, Free Gender, 2013)


South Africa’s Constitution of 1996 is considered one of the most advanced worldwide. It includes a ban on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This prohibition notwithstanding, the LGBTI community in South Africa faces a set of discriminatory practices: Violence, harassment, intimidation and hate crimes are common. So-called “corrective rapes” of lesbians and trans individuals recur over and over again, particularly in “informal settlements” and townships. With numerous projects, the Heinrich Böll Foundation seeks to improve the situation of lesbians, gay men, bisexual, trans and inter individuals and to strengthen the LGBTI community in South Africa.

One collaborative project between the hbf and Free Gender trained a group of lesbians and trans individuals from townships in Cape Town to write stories about their lives. In diverse workshops from November 2013 to March 2014 and assisted by an author, they learned to find words for the unspeakable. With touching poems and short prose, they gave a strong voice to themselves. In her introduction, the feminist activist Zethu Matebeni emphasises how important this is: “The gift of a voice can change life”. The texts were collected and published in the book “Rivers of Life –Lesbian Stories and Poems” and distributed to national and international institutions, among others, during the Days of Activism in November 2013.

A second book entitled “In search of happiness” by the author Sonbwabiso Ngcowa tells a story of lesbian love in a South African township. The novel was published by Cover2Cover and is aimed at the general public. This pioneering work is meant to be distributed in organisations, schools and libraries and was funded by the hbf. Both books are used as educational material in schools, townships and by LGBTI groups.

The exhibition and intervention by the South African artists Zanele Muholi and Gabrielle Le Roux aimed at contributing to a better understanding of LGBTI individuals’ life situations, too. With their exhibition “Queer and Trans Art-iculations” in the Wits Arts Museum in Johannesburg from January to March 2014, they created a space to render visible groups of individuals who are systematically excluded due to their sexual orientations and gender identities. The artists intended to intervene for the purpose of creating social justice and questioning dominant paradigms on gender and sexuality, such as the gender binary and heteronormativity. The exhibition was accompanied by a comprehensive series of events. One of the focuses of the exhibition was to give a voice to marginalised individuals, to speak with them rather than about them and, as such, to develop a basis for further action and dialogue between people.

Stigmatisation, discrimination, violence and invisibility in society determine the reality of lesbian women’s lives in Namibia. Violence against lesbians also occurs again and again in South Africa’s neighbouring country. Human rights violations frequently remain invisible, and the offenders get off with impunity. A comprehensive hbf project in the Erongo Region of Namibia aimed at achieving more visibility of lesbian women and increased awareness of their rights. In addition to a movie night with lesbian documentaries, a publication for parents of lesbian daughters and decision makers, workshops and trainings for lesbian women took place.

In collaboration with the Namibian women’s rights organisation Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) in Windhoek, the hbf helped young lesbian women to question prevailing constructions of gender, understand their rights, network and act independently. Twenty lesbians from the region participated in the workshops from March to July 2013, trying out various forms of artistic expression. Using their own photos, the women compiled the photo exhibition “We are creating ourselves in our own image” that was shown in Berlin in April 2014. The women present themselves as strong, proud and in full openness and, in doing so create themselves as active, self-confident women who are no longer prepared to accept social exclusion.

A similar project for LGBTI individuals of the Western Cape aimed at strengthening their self-confidence and political activism. The course “Landscape Within, Landscape Between, Landscape Around” dealt with personality development and developing strategies of resistance as a means of survival in a heteronormative and largely homophobic society. Some LGBTI individuals spoke about their injuries and traumas for the first time which can be considered a success. They addressed rapes and other forms of violence as well as expulsions from families and religious communities. The hbf is carrying out the project in collaboration with the NGO Triangle Project. It is based on the assumption that only strengthened and informed citizens can claim their rights and be agents of social change.

In Africa, the conflict between homosexuality and religious communities is particularly marked. Many religious leaders take the view that homosexuality is “UnAfrican”. Allegedly 80% of the South African population wants to withdraw the rights for homosexual individuals. The project “Moving open minds to open hearts” was carried out in collaboration with the partner organisation “Inclusive and Affirmative Ministries”. This civil society organisation raises awareness among ecclesiastical institutions. The project ran from February to December 2013 and aimed at reducing homophobic policies, legislation and attitudes in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, together with representatives of civil society. The trainings for seminarists and representatives of the Christian faith aimed at raising awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex individuals’ situations and taking action against intolerance and homophobia in religious communities. In addition, training material with country-specific contents and research projects were designed.

Not only Christian religious communities, but also Muslim believers frequently have a difficult relationship with homosexuality. Orthodox Islam forbids homosexuality before God, and in some countries homosexual acts are punishable by death. Queer Muslims suffer from these extreme situations, in particular when they are expelled from their families, tortured or forced to leave their countries. The project “Global Queer Muslim Outreach” that the hbf carried out in Cape Town with the human rights organisation The Inner Circle (TIC) from February to October 2013 addresses representatives of the Muslim community. The project included the preparations and realisation of the annual International Retreat which hosted the Global Queer Muslim Network meeting. This network meeting offers an alternative space for queer Muslims in order to learn from each other, exchange experiences and increase awareness with regard to sexual diversity in Islam. It aims at supporting Muslims trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. It focused on self-acceptance and produced significant strengthening and empowerment. The meeting revealed how important it is that the queer Muslim movement proactively stands up for the human rights of queer Muslims. The partner organisation TIC is the only organisation worldwide that supports Muslims who are specifically being discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity and offers to the Muslim community training opportunities on sexual diversity from a theological perspective.

The hbf Cape Town manages to raise awareness of LGBTI issues and increase the LGBTI community’s self-esteem by offering a wide range of films, publications, exhibitions, trainings, workshops and seminars on the issue. The goal is to create a safe and fulfilled future, without fear, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex individuals, too.


“Happiness is like the smell

of a new fresh day”

(Excerpt from a poem by Theo Masalaza, idem)