Breaking the silence: lesbian, bisexual and trans women campaigning for freedom from violence

Philippa Drew | Dec 08, 2017
Photo of LBT campaigner by Jewel Samad AFP Getty Images
A guest blog by Philippa Drew, Womankind supporter and Trustee of the Human Dignity Trust and the Kaleidoscope Trust.

Today around the world, 72 countries still outlaw homosexuality and 44 of them expressly or implicitly criminalise lesbians and bisexual women. A report by the Human Dignity Trust, called ‘Breaking the Silence; Criminalisation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women and its Impacts’ indicates that, whilst there is a general trend towards decriminalisation globally, there is a converse trend towards an increase in criminalisation of Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans (LBT) women. Over the past 30 years, 45 jurisdictions have decriminalised homosexuality, either through legislative repeal or the courts. However, during that same period, at least ten jurisdictions have amended their laws that criminalise gay and bisexual men, to include LBT women.

Even where female homosexuality is not expressly banned, lesbians are threatened with arrest, arrested, blackmailed or subject to violence whether from their families, from members of the public or the forces of the state. In 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that LGBT people “are at a disturbingly elevated risk of homicidal violence” and “the increased risk that lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women face because of gender-based discrimination”.

Stigma, stereotypes and a culture of impunity

 
Women’s sexuality is regulated by the community, religious institutions, the media, family and cultural networks. When a woman fails to comply with society’s stereotypes, she is punished with discrimination and abuse. LBT women are particularly vulnerable to verbal abuse, insults and harassment in public spaces, because their dress, mannerisms or interpersonal relations often subvert the socially accepted concepts of “masculine” and “feminine”. 

Furthermore, women that do not comply to gender norms may suffer from violence as a result. According to Women’s Support Group survey conducted in 2011, the more obvious a person’s non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity, the greater the likelihood that they will be “hit, sexually groped, verbally assaulted, and become targets of public threats”.   

The input by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to the UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence Against Women, confirms this:
One night, not so long ago, a mother was beating her daughter. She was placed in a sack, hung from the ceiling, and beaten by a broom again and again. On other occasions, the daughter was made to kneel on painful rocks or dry mung beans, arms stretched out, both hands holding glasses of water, and told to hold that position for hours on end unless she wanted to be mercilessly beaten again. When she was not beaten, she was forced to do manual domestic labour, often doing “traditional” male chores like fixing broken pipes or standing near the front door all night long. All this, simply because she is a lesbian.

Isolation and discrimination by families

In countries that still criminalise homosexuality, the first step towards eradicating discrimination and stigma is by making it illegal. However, whilst changing the law to decriminalise homosexuality is important, LBT women’s lives will not substantially change until expectations exerted by families and communities are removed.  Indeed, gender equality in religion and in society is essential if women in general and LBT women in particular are not to continue to suffer disproportionately.

Influenced by their religious beliefs, the families of LBT women are, in some cases, responsible for much of the violence and discrimination against them. In some cultures, the practice of “corrective rape” is used in the name of turning LBT women into so-called “real women”. In South Africa for example, it has been estimated that in 2008 at least 10 women were raped or gang raped weekly however underreporting means that the reality is much worse than what reports say.

An example from Russia shows how one woman is abused by her family:
Irina, a Russian lesbian, claimed asylum in the USA on the grounds that she had been tortured or ill-treated by a range of people, including her own family members.   Irina’s sisters demanded she give up custody of her son and get psychiatric treatment to “cure” her of her homosexuality. Furthermore, Irina’s parents hired two investigators to probe into her lifestyle. These investigators then abducted Irina, and raped her to “teach her a lesson” and "reorient” her sexual identity.
 

Lack of physical and sexual autonomy

Domestic laws often do not criminalise rape within marriage which can have severely negative impact on the lives of LBT women. Such laws perpetuate the belief that “women, and particularly married women, are always available for sex – with or without their consent”. This situation is extremely traumatic for lesbian women who are forced into heterosexual marriages, where most if not all sexual activity will be without their consent. For example, a lesbian member of Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe reported that, when her parents discovered she was a lesbian, they forced her to live with and marry a man who they knew was consistently raping her. The result of such a marriage is a lifetime of sexual abuse.

LBT women in forced marriages suffer from a lack of autonomy over their reproductive health and their family planning choices. Such marriages can have a negative impact on their mental and physical health. Where LBT women are rejected by their families, on account of their sexual orientation, they experience disproportionate levels of suicide, homelessness and food insecurity.

Standing up and speaking out

Around the world LBT women are campaigning for legal rights and freedom from violence. They speak out in the face of great danger and threats to them and their loved ones. 

If they are to find justice the wider women’s rights movement needs to embrace their cause and specifically:
 
1. Address the interlinked issues of homophobia, transphobia and gender inequality
2. Adopt an intersectional approach to women’s rights advocacy
3. Amplify the voices of women and girls
 
The particular vulnerabilities of LBT women highlighted in this paper shine light on the subjugation of all women, on the basis of stereotypical gender norms. The failure of some women’s rights organisations to acknowledge LBT women and uphold their rights is to miss an opportunity to free the identity of women from gender stereotypes.

Until all women support other women in their struggle to live freely, women will not be free from the subjugation of men.
 

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