The story of Eudy Simelane, the South African national football star who was brutally murdered because she was a lesbian, illustrates several contradictions for LGBTI people in Africa.
Despite being a national sporting hero, Simelane was exposed to danger on a daily basis. Her gruesome murder inspired some church communities to mobilize their members against homophobic hatred. Her staunchly Christian parents, with the support of their pastor, now champion LGBTI equality and social inclusion in South Africa. Yet, the brutal violence against black lesbians and gays continues on a daily basis.
In April, at a gathering convened by the Other Foundation, more than 100 church and LGBTI activists from across Africa came together to discuss church-based approaches to countering this violence. The quiet presence of Simelane’s family at the gathering was a powerful reminder that homophobic hatred, often driven by religious ideology, is a matter of life and death.
Through tough dialogue, the church groups and LGBTI activists at the gathering developed practical strategies to counteract homophobia within and beyond the churches. This included the cultivation of theological perspectives, reflections on the use of appropriate language, tools to facilitate engagement between LGBTI people and church leaders, and the use of liturgy and the arts.
During one of the convening’s high points, Edwin Cameron, a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, gave the inaugural Eudy Simelane Memorial Lecture, hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Religion. In it, he recalled the many black lesbians who had been murdered in South Africa because they were gender nonconforming, but declared that progress in recognizing the human rights of LGBTI people has been made in many parts of Africa.
A new law focused on hate crimes is being considered in South Africa to more directly respond to violence against gender nonconforming people. The real challenge, though, is shifting social attitudes on a society-wide scale. For that, leveraging the role of religion to combat homophobia is crucial. The life and death of Eudy Simelane not only encapsulates this challenge, but proves its urgency.