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A look into the plight of South Africa's homeless LGBTI citizens

South Africa's Homeless Gays

By Tsholofelo Wesi submitted to QL by Alison Meyer

South Africa's constitution has opened the doors for lesbian, gay, bisexuality, transgender and intersex citizens into the 1996 Bill of Rights, but many South African homes have yet to do the same.

The wide gap between what the constitutions says and what actually happens has been well-documented, and it is as true for sexuality and gender as it is for race.

Reliable statistics of how many South Africans today are on the streets as a result of homophobia and transphobia, either from losing a home or job, are still unknown.

Homelessness in the country affects millions of South Africans of diverse identities, often disproportionately leaning towards people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Countries such as the United States have widely varying statistics of gay and transgender people who are homeless, with some reporting the portion of LGBT+ people who make up America’s homeless population to be from 20% to 40%. Accurate numbers are difficult to obtain, as not all LGBT+ openly identity as such.

Determining whether or not South Africa has the same problem on the same scale may be challenging as both countries have fairly liberal constitutions but have different cultural norms. However, according to a 2013 Pew Research Centre poll, only 32% of South Africans believe homosexuality should be accepted, while 60% in the US reportedly agreed.

On a bureaucratic and governmental level, tolerance for LGBT+ has had a flawed record, such as when a government official, James Mthethwa, was heard making inflammatory statements against gay people. Shortly after his homophobic remarks, Mthethwa was promoted from mayor of Umzinyathi district in KwaZulu-Natal to the Nation Council of Provinces.

The fraught politics of sexuality and gender in households

The homophobia that pervades daily life and institutions in the country is indicative of what Africa Is a Country senior editor Neelika Jayawardane describes as a heteronormative culture – its norms and values are based on the premise that heterosexual desire and behaviour are the default norm while they are intolerant of identities that challenge that premise.

She says in all countries, and more so countries that are heteronormative, too many young people are turned out of their homes when they are forcibly outed or when their family realises or understands they are gay.

The dynamics behind the decisions made by families when they banish their children are“needless to say, complex and fraught,” says Jayawardane.

She explains: “A large part of that dynamic has to do with patriarchy and its dependent relationship with heteronormativity. That kind of extreme policing of sexual borders often happens when patriarchal structures sense a threat.”

Homosexuality and transgender identity at home can pose a threat and suggest a change to the status quo that places on alert those who benefit from patriarchy in the household, mainly straight men, and a few token, powerful women, says Jayawardane.

She explains that while straight men can also be harmed by patriarchy, the authority that heterosexual men feel entitled to drives them to dictate what is acceptable in the household, “especially when other forms of power that heterosexuality and patriarchy are supposed to give a male head of family are not forthcoming – money, land, material possessions, power in the workplace and the social sphere”.

“These social and economic conditions mean that patriarchy often turns to policing domestic spaces and the borders of heteronormativity as last refuges in which it may exert authority and power,” Jayawardane says.

She warns against the conclusion that the poor or working class are more prone to prejudice and cruelty towards their gay or trans family members. “Rich people also sure know how to behave cruelly – perhaps in different ways, sometimes.”

SA’s “only LGBT+ friendly shelter”

Pride Shelter is a nongovernmental organisation in Cape Town initiated by Cape Town Pride that runs a shelter providing short-term accommodation to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals during “crisis periods”. It is the only known shelter of its kind in the country.

The “crisis periods” commonly include incidents of prejudice that leave LGBT+ people homeless or vulnerable to abuse in their homes or at work.

Matron Janette Richter pointed The Citizen to the shelter’s website, where they have published testimonials from residents at the shelter. Brandon and Andrew* stayed at the shelter after they lost their business and home and were disowned by their families when they got married.

Steve*, from Durban, says he lost his job allegedly as a result of homophobia. He was living in Pretoria at the time and, after finding out about Pride Shelter, moved to Cape Town and was taken in at the shelter.


Closely related to homophobia is transphobia. Transgender and people whose gender identities go outside of what is defined as “acceptable” are poorly understood, let alone tolerated or accepted.

A 2014 Transilience Project research report on the violence against transgender women highlighted the alarmingly high levels of violence experienced by members of this demographic, with 86% of participants in the study reporting past incidents of physical and psychological violence, which often occur in their homes and communities and go unreported due to a lack of faith in police, who themselves are often said to be transphobic.

Alongside unemployment and difficulties in the school environment, resulting in many trans people dropping out eventually, the report also put a spotlight on the over-representation of trans women and girls among the country’s homeless.

They are also badly represented in the media, as in the instance where a national newspaper confused gay men for transwomen and ran the headline: “Gay people can join the ANC Women’s League”.

Life on the streets

Once homeless and in the streets, LGBT+ people face a unique set of challenges.

Navigating the shelter system in many cities for queer people can be disheartening, as illustrated by the options available to trans women when searching for safe spaces, a conundrum that was pointed out to The Citizen by Jabu Pereira of LGBT+ activist group Iranti.

Given the options of men’s shelters, mixed gender and woman’s shelters, the last two are the presumably appropriate choices a trans woman could make.

However, mixed gender shelters are not any safer for a trans woman than her home, and they are therefore seen as risky unless the woman or girl is able to conceal her identity.

Women’s shelters, on the other hand, have trouble with their definition of who they can admit as a “woman”. The admission policies are often cisnormative – based on the assumption that a woman may only be biologically female.

Friday Hartley in Yeoville, Johannesburg, is one of the biggest and most well-resourced shelters in the city.

Pereira specially points out that shelters are commonly funded by Christian organisations and establishments, a factor that may influence how openly they accept LGBT+ people into their fold.

Frida Hartley’s manager, Charity Ngubane*, named Frida Hartley’s varied sources of funding when requested by The Citizen, and they included corporate groups and Christian establishments.

Ngubane said the churches “are very generous. God bless them”.

When asked if the shelter would admit a transwoman, Ngubane says: “We don’t discriminate; we’ve just never had to deal with it.” She slips in, “We are Christian-based,” and adds, “Anyway, I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t know.”

She said the shelter will have to be cautious because “once you open that door [for trans/gay] people, you give people ideas.”

She said in the event that a transwoman needs shelter, she will have to take it up with the board to discuss but is not certain how that would turn out.

Ngubane says the board would seriously consider the case of accommodating a transwoman if the woman could prove she had tried all other shelters and exhausted all other options.

“It’s not a closed case,” she said, and reiterated it was not a black-and-white situation.

Asked if intervention by church donors could influence the board’s decision, she explained: “We don’t have to disclose who we house to the donors.”

Residents Tshepang* and Nomalanga* chatted about sexuality and gender, and mentioned that a lesbian woman had been living at the shelter and had a hard time fitting in before leaving about a week before.

But regarding trans women and girls, Tshepang says: “They don’t take people like that in here.”

Nomalanga, said: “We are Christian here. If you are a woman, you can’t say you used to be a man.”

Faced with the ordeal of having the most elementary fact of their identity in the hands of bureaucratic processes, trans women are inclined to seek other alternatives.

Research often shows that homelessness exposes many who experience it to significant levels of violence. This vulnerability is particularly experienced by sexual minorities and people whose gender identities fall outside of the cisgender norm.

*Shaun was living at the Pride Shelter in Cape Town and was optimistic he would find a new job soon to start supporting himself again. He had found himself without a place to stay for about a week after a disagreement with his landlord and an unsuccessful appeal with the Housing Tribunal.

He said that “one becomes more vulnerable” when they are gay and try to navigate the shelter system or encounter other strangers in the streets.

He notes though he does not appear stereotypically “gay” in his outward appearance and mannerisms, he still feels fortunate to have found Pride Shelter because in any other environment, when the time comes to openly identify as gay, “it could make people uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.”

“It saddens me when people have to look only for specific places where people feel safe,” he says.

In a country slow to question and reform its cultural norms of gender and sexuality, spaces such as Pride Shelter are necessary but rare, a point reified by Shaun’s story.

And space at the country’s sole shelter for LGBT+ people is limited. With the country’s high unemployment rates and shelters not being a viable option, sex work and other risky paths stand as alternatives.


* not their real names

The plus in LGBT+ signifies the diversity of social categories based on gender and sexuality, which are by default, recognised and protected by the constitution.

Above story was first published in South African newspaper, The Citizen, on the 28th of October 2015 and was submitted to QL by a reader as stated in the byline.

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