Once home to a thriving lesbian and gay community, Yeoville is now filled with homophobic attitudes and hatred, effectively cutting out a significant part of the community- its LGBTIs.  With little to no structural support in the area, people are forced to either rely on one another and face possible condemnation, or struggle in silence.

They cannot rely on the police for assistance, as many of them are illegal immigrants and believe that regardless of their nationality, they would not be helped. Roxanne Joseph looks at how Yeoville’s lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has been scared in silence, experiencing regular harassment and frequent vicious attacks, including being beaten in the streets and raped.

It was just after midnight when David* left a bar on Yeoville’s busy Rockey Street to make a phone call. He left his friends inside and walked out onto the street alone.

A 28-year-old Congolese man, David has been living openly as a gay man in Yeoville for nearly a decade.  So when a group of men silently walked towards him, he knew what was about to happen.

“I knew what was coming,” he says, speaking months later from the safety of a coffee shop in what he sees as a gay-friendly Melville.

The men quickly had him on the ground, kicking him in the ribs, face, groin and back. The blows stung. Helpless, he curled up into a ball, waiting for it to be over.

RISK ON ROCKEY: While Yeoville used to have a thriving lesbian and gay community, it is now considered dangerous to be an openly gay member of the community. LGBTIs are regularly attacked all over the area, and many of these vicious attacks have taken place outside Rockey Street’s nightclubs and bars. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Around him, the air was thick with each blow, his lungs felt heavier and his breathing slowed. Hopeless, he gave up almost immediately on trying to shield his body as their black boots struck him, crunching and cracking.

“I decided not to fight back, that just isn’t me. I hate violence. I just prayed for them to stop and, eventually, I guess they’d had enough and they just walked away, laughing and talking loudly.”

He heard voices in the distance and the steady beat of loud music from the club above him. He started to cry, suddenly afraid that his tears would spur his attackers on, causing them to inflict even more pain on his already broken body.

“Every day I live in fear that I will be attacked again,” says David.  His decision to live openly as a gay man was not an easy one. And it has come at a high cost.

It was the physical attack, and its brutality, that changed him the most, forcing him for the first time to try and hide his sexuality from the homophobic gaze of his neighbours and to spend more time away from Yeoville.

“I’m scared, nervous. I worry about what will happen if I’m too open.”

‘Attacked because he was gay’

David is not the only member of Yeoville’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community to have been attacked in the area. Although no official figures exist, members of the gay community recall a number of homophobic attacks over the past few years.

Afterwards, his friends found him lying on the street, bleeding and crying. David did not ask them if they had seen what had happened. He knew they would probably be too afraid to admit it if they had.

David’s friends wanted to take him to the hospital, but he refused and asked to be taken home instead.

David is tall, gangly and soft-spoken, going about things in a very gentle manner. The way he greets, stirs sugar into his coffee and describes his story is slow and placid, as if trying not to draw attention to himself.

Every time he talks about what happened, his voice cracks and he anxiously taps his fingers against the table, forcing himself to carry on. He says he wants people to know what happened, so that “things can get better”.

The men who attacked him did not try to steal his money. They did not take his phone from where he had dropped it when the attack began. They simply beat him viciously before running away, laughing and shouting. David can only think he was attacked because he was gay.

“They didn’t say anything the entire time, but I recognised some of them, had seen them watching me before, staring at me like I’m not normal, like being gay makes me look different.”

David never reported the crime, believing the police would not take the attack seriously because he is gay. He is also an illegal immigrant, without documentation to stay in South Africa, and he feared he would be arrested if he tried to lay a complaint.

David is one of many members of the Yeoville gay community who have endured attacks because of their sexuality.

Scared into silence

Few are willing to share the details of their experiences or reveal their identities because they are fearful of what the consequences of speaking out might be.

FREE TO BE ME: Dorcas Ncube, originally from Zimbabwe, is one of the few members of the LGBTI community who is willing to speak about his experiences as a transgendered gay man, living and working in Yeoville. He is regularly harassed, but is determined to be open about his sexuality, despite homophobic attitudes throughout the community. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Sarah*, a lesbian woman and a black South African, has lived in Yeoville for five years and said the fear of being “found to be gay or lesbian” is very real, especially for women. Last year she was raped by three men who told her they were trying to “fix” her.

“Men I believed were harmless, but actually, they’re monsters,” she says, trying to hold back the tears as she recalls her experience.

She was walking home one night carrying a plastic shopping bag in her hand when a group of men grabbed her. They took her to an empty park where they shoved her to the ground. One of them held her hands above her head, the other pinned her feet to the ground, the third raped her. Then they swapped places and swapped again before they were done.

Much like David, Sarah’s experience has made her afraid to speak out, but she chooses to continue to live openly as a lesbian woman in Yeoville. She too hopes that talking about what happened to her will help to make the situation better for Yeoville’s LGBTI community.

She says many people in Yeoville are afraid to admit they are lesbian, gay or transgendered because of the likelihood of vicious attacks. They hear stories about gay men being attacked in the light of day and women who are dragged behind buildings and raped. They fear what might happen to them.

This fear keeps them from organising. They do not meet regularly, nor do they have a support group of any kind. They occasionally hang out at nightclubs in the area and, once a year, brave the possibility of being harassed and attacked by holding a small pride party.

“It’s a chance to spend time together and celebrate who we are,” says Dorcas Ncube, a transgendered gay man from Zimbabwe.

“Sis’ Dorcas”, as he is called by people who know him, works at his brother’s hair salon and is openly gay with his customers, friends and family. However, this does not mean he is any less afraid of being victimised.

But there are not many like Ncube, who is one of the few gay people in Yeoville willing to be identified by name in this article. Their fear is constant because the LGBTIs are regularly told they are unwelcome. A casual conversation with many people living in Yeoville reveals deep-seated homophobia.

“I hate them,” Frank, a hairdresser on Rockey Street, says cheerfully. He would not give his surname.

“They’re all devil worshippers,” he adds. He stops braiding a woman’s hair to curl his fingers above his head in the shape of horns for emphasis.

Frank, a religious man, says he would never be violent towards a gay person but attends church every Sunday and prays that God will “take care of these people”.

“They should all go to prison,” he says, before quickly changing his mind. “No, wait, that’s where this stuff happens. They should all just be killed.”

This attitude is familiar to David. When asked to walk around Yeoville, he reluctantly agrees, pointing out where fellow members of the gay community have been attacked (“that corner, behind that building”, “in the back room of that club” and “in that park, where the kids play”).

His entire demeanour is different in Yeoville. He moves between moments of being comfortable and others where he is nervous and his body begins to physically shake.

Dorcas Ncube, a transgender gay man living in Yeoville faces harassment on a daily basis. By: Roxanne Joseph

Homophobia vs xenophobia

It was not always like this. Yeoville was once the home of a thriving gay and lesbian community in the 1970s and ’80s.  The neighbourhood at the time was one of apartheid’s “gray areas” where black and white residents mixed.

Gabriel Kahn, the youth director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), says this changed when the city “began to fragment” in the 1990s. The white population moved out and African immigrants moved in. The city neglected the CBD and surrounding areas, leading to damage and decay in some parts.

Today, Yeoville is filled with migrants and refugees, mostly from Africa, who have come to South Africa for a number of different reasons, including fleeing homophobic laws and attitudes in their home countries.

“A small minority come because of their sexual orientation and the belief that our progressive laws can protect them,” says Kahn. “But when they arrive here, they often have to stay with people from their home countries and then they don’t really get to escape the homophobia … they might have been experiencing back home.”

Even though South Africa has laws which are meant to protect people based on their sexual orientation, Kahn says this is not always put into practice by authorities who may also be xenophobic in addition to being homophobic.

“When people arrive here they have a double whammy of prejudice,” Kahn says.

This makes it difficult for people like David to navigate his day-to-day life, always afraid to step out of line but struggling to make an honest living, because of how he is treated.

“I work a bit, but I can’t get a proper job, no one will have me,” he says. He is not clear if this is because he is an immigrant or gay but hints at both having caused problems for him in the past.

On the surface, South Africa has been a leading nation in advancing LGBTI rights. It was the first country in the world to recognise LGBTI rights as human rights in its Constitution and one of the first to recognise gay marriage.

JOHANNESBURG PRIDE: Although Johannesburg Pride was held far away from Yeoville (in Sandton) this year, many of the area’s residents attended, as they felt it was one of the few opportunities they have to be open members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

However, despite this, the attitudes of many South Africans are deeply homophobic. Gay people, in poorer areas in particular, suffer from a lack of support from the authorities and their families.

“They’re afraid of corrective rape and of being killed.”

Nthanthla* has not yet come out to her family because she is scared of what they will think of her. She says the only support the Yeoville gay community has is each other but “even that is limited”. Many people are not willing to be openly gay and even fewer are prepared to come out as lesbian.

“They’re afraid of corrective rape and of being killed,” she says.

Many are also afraid of going to the authorities. Khan says it might be more dangerous for them to go to the police when they are attacked. “A big problem in South Africa is the implementation of law and policy. Many believe gays are asking for ‘special rights’.

“We are just being asked to be treated equally to other people.”

David agrees, explaining this was the reason he did not want to go to the police when he was attacked and beaten.

Standing on a street in Yeoville, he points a finger towards the police station and angrily jerks his head in the opposite direction saying: “I would actually run the other way if they came near me. They know who of us are gay and they would rather put us in jail than those who hurt us.”

Safer in Yeoville

There are a number of NGOs in South Africa who work with the gay community. Many of them operate in the city centre and cater to surrounding areas, including Yeoville.

But Kahn says many of these organisations have had to downsize in the past few years. South Africa is often seen by the outside world as a “success story”, offering reduced motivation to invest funding.

In addition to a lack of funding, according to Kahn, there is a further challenge because gay rights NGOs are “notoriously bad” at dealing with migrant and immigration issues like those facing members of Yeoville’s gay community.

David now prefers to socialise in gay-friendly areas of Johannesburg like Melville and Braamfontein. But he says he will continue to live in Yeoville.

It has been his home for nearly a year now and he has become a part of a close-knit gay community, which is important to him.

“I know it sounds crazy, because many of these people hate who I am, but I feel like I belong. I have friends, who are like my family, here in Yeoville,” David says.

He gazes fondly at Club 28, which is where their pride party will be held in the coming weeks. He refuses to go inside now though, explaining that without his friends, he is not comfortable there.

Like many other Congolese immigrants in the area, he came to South Africa to escape violence in his home country. His dream is to become a writer, as he has a passion for poetry, but says he is forced to do “odd jobs here and there” just to survive. He rents a tiny room in a small house, where he cooks, entertains and sleeps.

He does not know if he will ever go back, explaining that he likes South Africa but is concerned by the attitude of his neighbours: “It is meant to be a liberal African country, how can they discriminate just because I am gay?”

David says that no matter where he lives, he will be discriminated against and wonders if — despite the harassment — Yeoville isn’t perhaps “one of the safer areas” in Johannesburg. With such a diverse community, he hopes things will get better one day.

“More people should come to our pride parties. They’re great, they show the people of Yeoville that we’re just like them.” He pauses, laughs and adds: “Except we’re more fun.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Dorcas Ncube, originally from Zimbabwe, is one of the few members of the LGBTI community who is willing to speak about his experiences as a transgendered gay man, living and working in Yeoville. He is regularly harassed, but is determined to be open about his sexuality, despite homophobic attitudes throughout the community. Photo: Roxanne Joseph