Another lesbian was raped and murdered in Ventersdorp, South Africa. But we cannot talk about that alone. We cannot speak about the unspeakable kinds of violence carried out on black women’s bodies without speaking about poverty. We cannot shine a light on violence when violence occurs, but remain silent about the multitude of other violations, that we experience, daily, everywhere, which culminate in the brutal, hateful actions that are carried out on black women’s bodies. Our bodies continue to be silent battlefields where misogyny, patriarchy and cultural imperialism rage their never ending wars. Our families, communities, religions and governments police black women’s bodies; making decisions about how we can appear and how we present or adorn our bodies daily-often without our consultation and certainly without our consent. Our governments control our reproduction. Our families partisan to social and religious structures that enforce the idea that there is only one way to be a woman-and strive to keep us in line, a homogenous picture of the black African woman.
Gift Makau’s body joins the bodies of hundreds more black African women, living and killed, who broke the rules and refused to conform to the oppressive heteronormative regime. Bodies which refused to accept that we cannot and we will not be told by a tunnel-visioned patriarchal majority who to be or how to be ourselves. Our resistance, our courage, our steadfast affirmation of our diverse selves is met with violence. People, individuals and communities, think that, like hot iron on an anvil, we can be beaten back into a more socially acceptable shape. We become targets of social and physical abuse. We become anomalies, glitches in the heterosexist system which people try to fix with oppressive legislature. Gender non-conforming women (and men), proudly and openly living and owning their bodily autonomy tell the truth. They unmask the lie that there is only one way to look, one way to love and one way to live. They present an honest alternative to the homogenous narrative around sexuality and gender. These brave black women declare that we do have choices. And we can own our bodies.
We cannot continue to only speak of violence when a black lesbian woman is murdered. This cannot be the only kind of violence we see-in its extreme and most brutal form. We exist around this violence, in taxi ranks and school hallways. We live in perpetual fear of being harmed. We are always careful how we exist and where we allow our true selves to be present. No matter how polite, and gentle we are, no matter how much we try to shrink away from social spaces, our different black bodies are statements of resistance, a performance of resilience, and sadly, an invitation from conservative society for enforced conformity. The multifaceted issues that allow this violence to flourish need to be shouted from the rooftops. The poverty and socio-economic inequality that robs abused black lesbians of justice and recourse needs to always be present in our days and nights. The homophobic and transphobic discourses that pervade our social spaces and popular culture-our movies, music, art and craft need to be called out and no tolerance for their intolerant tones allowed. We need to recognise violence in its most mundane and subtle manifestations. And challenge people, communities, leaders and structures that seek to normalise violence in all its forms and expressions over black women’s bodies.
Our language has to evolve. We need to stop giving abuse degrees of severity. Brutally murdered. Correctively raped. Viciously assaulted. Heartlessly beaten. This plants the idea that there are permissible kinds of violence that we can ‘live’ with, and others which we can’t. Domestic abuse. Gender-based violence. Language like this creates distance, and to a degree cushions a perpetrator’s actions and crafts a justifiable hierarchy of abuse, with mild to extreme indicators. Any kind of abuse is abuse. It’s the creation of these degrees of harm and abuse that set a bar for media and social involvement and outrage. How many black lesbian women have been raped by their community members and live with the silent shame? We won’t read about them in the papers, and we will not march in solidarity with them because we don’t know their stories. Even lesbians that wish to speak out about the unimaginable suffering they endure daily in public spaces are asked to pick a spot on the spectrum of abuse, and if it doesn’t make for a fetching headline-then it’s not newsworthy. We must change our language.
Before another black lesbian woman is murdered in South Africa-what are we going to do? What conversations are we going to have? Much as I’d like to call for the leadership to act swiftly, and work harder in guaranteeing safety for black women, all over South Africa, I know, and we know that at best what we will get is kilos of lip service. Empty words of empathy that seek to soothe the symptom and not the cause. All we have left is ourselves, and our black bodies to use as statements of resistance and courage. We need to march-not only when we are raped and murdered, but march when we know there is silence behind hidden screams. We need to write-during the spaces between when we don’t know the name of a black lesbian woman who was murdered, or abused, or heckled at the taxi rank. We need to recognise that all violence is violence. All abuse is abuse. There are no degrees. There is no violence or abuse that we can tolerate. There isn’t violence that we can allow-there is no permissible degree of violence. And we cannot wait until another black lesbian woman is murdered for us to find our voices, to see our anger and to demand justice. We quite simply can’t.