Inside the church, it’s calm and quiet. It was here that students fleeing the police were offered refuge during last year’s #FeesMustFall protests.
I’m sitting with the founder of a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) African refugees, Ricus Dullaert, and three of its many members from Zimbabwe who have decided to tell me their stories.
“I begged and walked all the way here” – Rodney
The 32-year-old, who is wearing a light blue T-shirt and jeans, has been in South Africa for the past month and says the support group has been his saving grace.
“I heard about the group from fellow gay guys from Zimbabwe, and I really needed the support because I was going through a lot of depression.
“I’d gone through a lot of persecution and gay bashing in Zimbabwe, so I really needed a family or people who would accept me,” he says.
“I figured out that I was gay in high school. When I was caught kissing another student behind the school building, the story spread around the whole school. People called me all sorts of names. When I finished high school, I couldn’t wait to be actively gay.
“I tried to phone Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe [Galz] and they told me I was too young to be a member. I had to wait until I was 18.”
Galz, the queer advocacy group established in hostile territory in 1990, doesn’t allow membership to under 18s as part of its constitution, Rodney tells me.
While living with a partner and inspired by a book called Out of the Closets, Rodney plucked up the courage to write a letter to his mother.
He asked her to accept him the way he is, and told her that being gay is not unnatural. He also asked her not to tell anyone else in the family except his brother, a plea she ignored.
“I moved back home after my partner and I broke up and, at first, they seemed accepting, but, deep inside, they were not.
“They had plastic smiles and, with time, I’d notice the homophobia – like my own brother would not share a tea cup with me because I was gay and I’d also found out I was HIV positive. I was 19,” Rodney says quietly.
He recounts the many times his family would “discipline” him with beatings. Sometimes, members of the community would join in.
“A guy flirted with me once, giving me mixed signals. I went to his place, we chatted and I asked him out.
“He seemed to agree at first and then stepped outside to call supporters of [President Robert] Mugabe. All of a sudden, I saw a crowd gathered outside his room.
“I think he had shouted: ‘Homosexual! Homosexual in my room!’ They asked if I was doing witchcraft and forced me to take off my clothes.”
I can sense Rodney’s heart racing. He fiddles with his earphones.
In his greatest moment of humiliation, the crowd beat him.
“They tied my hands with an electric cable and I was weeping profusely. They took me to the police station, where they wanted me to admit to committing sodomy, which I had not engaged in,” he says.
Knowing the police were corrupt, Rodney exchanged his passport for money.
“I gave the policeman $5 [R65] and he released me. I had a black eye and a severe headache that wouldn’t go away. Everyone in the neighbourhood ended up knowing about me and I decided to leave.”
He left for South Africa in 2009, but struggled to secure a job and eventually moved back to Zimbabwe, but his life didn’t improve.
Years later, Rodney is back with the same ambition as before.
“South Africa is where I can be free and have my rights recognised. I did not have a cent in my pocket, but I made it here. I begged and walked all the way [from Zimbabwe],” he says.
“Dumi, I’m transgender” – Tee
You shouldn’t judge Tee by your first impression of her.
She is dressed fiercely – all in black, heavy boots and a spiky wrist band, and she has a piercing below her lip.
But she soon reveals herself to be cheerful and optimistic, and bold and proud of who she is. Her hands fly into the air as she talks.
The 31-year-old customer services consultant has been in South Africa since 2011 and joined the group at the beginning of last year.
“I’m used to leaving Tee outside the door and being someone else in the church … I’ve been judged in church before, by Christians mostly, so I find it very comforting to be in this church and actually be myself. I love it here,” she says.
She tells us her story.
“My first crush was my best friend in high school. We had a little something; there was no name for it. I thought for a very long time that I was the only gay person in Zimbabwe, but then I saw a butch lesbian pass by me one day.
“I thought to myself, if I don’t talk to this person, I’ll be stuck forever,” she remembers.
After that, she was introduced to many other gay people and “went crazy”. She had just turned 23, “a late bloomer”. She found out about Galz and started dating a woman.
“She was out and proud! Everywhere you go, everyone must know … This is how my family found out – the person had to let everybody know that she was dating me. So I didn’t come out of the closet, I was pulled out,” she giggles.
She was subsequently chased from the house and disowned for a year.
“It was terrible. I went and stayed with this person who blew everything up for me. We tried to stay together for about six months, but it didn’t work out.
“I went back home and it wasn’t good. I wasn’t even allowed to talk to my brother’s wife. The environment was tense, so I made a plan to come here,” Tee says.
“They don’t really talk about it now. If I put my partner’s picture on my [WhatsApp] profile, my mum sends me a message: ‘Your profile picture…’ I’d remove it.
“But I am out and proud now and I’m normal. To them, I’m abnormal. I’m an adult now, so they just have to deal with it.
“What’s difficult for me right now is that I identify as transgender. I’m struggling to process and understand it; I haven’t even said it out loud in the group…”
She – in fact, we should now call him he – pauses and looks over at Dumisani, who is in shock.
“Dumi, I’m transgender,” Tee says.
Light laughter ripples through the room as Dumisani processes the news.
It’s clear just how close Dumisani and Tee are.
“I haven’t started the transition yet. I’m just talking to people and trying to understand,” says Tee.
“Here, we can integrate faith and being gay”– Ricus
Activist Dumisani Dube is the 35-year-old leader of the support group and has been in South Africa for six years.
The sometimes pensive, bespectacled man in a snapback cap is open about the challenges of the job.
“It’s difficult to deal with people’s individual interests and backgrounds – people from countries with different cultures and religions. But I feel safe in the group, it’s something I look forward to.”
In the process of providing psychological and social support, he has been exposed to numerous life experiences, which inform his activism, he says.
“We talk about how to access your rights as a refugee or migrant. We also have links with health institutions because health is a big concern in the group,” Dumisani says.
For his part, Ricus, group founder and parishioner at the church, moved to South Africa from the Netherlands in 2001 and made the church aware of the need to help struggling LGBTI immigrants.
“The idea of the group was to give a home where people could meet and find some fellowship … Where we can integrate faith and being gay,” he says. That was eight years ago and the space is thriving today.
The group helps those who seek employment, healthcare or asylum papers, and works with many other organisations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service.
“There’s also Nazareth House in Yeoville, which helps people who need antiretroviral medication, hospice care or counselling.”
Ricus tells me that almost 60% of the Holy Trinity congregation are foreigners or refugees.
“The parish wants to be inclusive. The group wanted the parish to make them more visible and the church did. Our group is not only for Catholics, it’s open to anyone.
“We have met people from Pentecostal backgrounds; Methodist churches … We cater for everyone who needs help – we even had an Islamic member,” he says.
“And an atheist!” chimes in Tee, and everyone laughs.
“If home was okay, I wouldn’t be here in the first place” – Tee
The conversation turns to life in South Africa. Rodney feels more liberated here, but he is mostly concerned about financial stability: “My biggest struggle is finding shelter, a home for myself.”
Dumisani says: “The only thing we’re holding on to is that the Constitution protects LGBTI rights here. But the plight of LGBTI refugees is double.
“You are in someone else’s house and it’s not easy. You face some homophobic situations, like in Zimbabwe.
“In health institutions, like at Johannesburg General Hospital, some people cannot be helped because the hospital wants passports or asylum permits,” he says. “Looking for employment is so difficult.”
The difficulty in securing asylum is one of the major things contributing to a sometimes stagnant life.
Although he’s only been in the country for a month, Rodney managed to get his asylum papers on the day he visited home affairs, but Tee has been put on a waiting list.
“They have this ATM-like machine where they type in your details and take your fingerprints.
“I don’t know if they type in a date for you or if the machine knows, but I got a receipt with an appointment of June 26 to go back and get my papers.
“On the receipt, it says you are not guaranteed legal rights to be in the country.
“All I was thinking was that I’ve come here to get a paper and all you’ve given me is something that tells everybody that I’m illegal.”
Rodney explains the dilemma, pleading for change: “Home affairs needs to make an exemption for LGBTI refugees, or have a special permit, and renew our permits after a year or so because, after three months, you have to get a new one.
“Some people get a job in Durban or Cape Town and can’t afford to come up to Joburg to renew their papers every time.”
He says that the offices in Cape Town where you could renew asylum papers have closed, and the only ones now left are in Pretoria.
Tee has not been physically attacked in any xenophobic or homophobic way, but says that abuse is not always physical.
“Verbal attacks can qualify as homophobia and xenophobia as well, which is more difficult to deal with.
“I experience homophobia almost every day because it is very obvious when people look at me that I’m a member of the LGBTI community, so I get insulted by strangers all the time.”
Tee says xenophobia is only a problem if people are out to get you.
“Strangers can’t just look at me and tell that I’m a foreigner unless I tell them that I am.
“When the attacks are happening … somebody can just be mean to you, especially if you’re employed and are a foreigner, and they are South African and they’re not employed. [At work], people say: ‘Go back to your countries and come back here legally.’ They think we came here illegally.
“But xenophobia is so difficult because you start thinking that, if the worst comes to the worst, you’ll have to go back home. If home was okay, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
Maybe one day that will change.
Despite the “climate of hysterical homophobia”, Galz says there is a growing tolerance for LGBTI people, especially among the younger people in urban areas.
But, although Galz works tirelessly in the fight for LGBTI rights, membership has decreased because so many people – like Rodney, Tee and Dumisani – have left the country to seek safety.
For now, while they navigate the stormy seas of their lives in South Africa, they all find comfort in their new family at the church. The support keeps their hope alive.
This series on LGBTI life in Africa is made possible through a partnership with The Other Foundation. To learn more about its work, visit theotherfoundation.org
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Do you think your church may be homophobic?Post published in: Featured