A year has passed since the senseless murder of lesbian chef and business owner Tyonne Johns, who was stabbed to death over a conflict involving a pile of folding chairs. This is what official reports of her death will have you believe, anyway. However, her friends and family have a very different account of the 35-year-old’s killing: they believe the attack was motivated by homophobia. They believe her death was a hate crime.
I cannot claim to know very much about the vulnerabilities of black lesbians in the United States; in fact, the only account of hate crimes against lesbians in America I can recall is the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, in which Hillary Swank earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of a masculine-of-center lesbian who is raped and murdered.
However, as a South African, narratives of brutal attacks on lesbians—particularly black lesbians—are all too familiar. World-renowned photographer and activist Zanele Muholi made waves when she first documented the inhumane practice of “corrective rape” in South African townships (ghettos) in a 2003 exhibition capturing the stories of twelve survivors called The Rose Has Thorns.
At the time, Muholi was quoted to have claimed the motive for these attacks on masculine-of-center lesbians was to “turn you into a real African woman” and to “cure” them of homosexuality.
Since then, many other cases have come to light, with a Cape Town support group claiming to handle an average of ten new attacks per week in 2009. But even with all the evidence laid out in front of them, the South African Justice Department refused to acknowledge these attacks for what they were: hate crimes.
Year in and year out, men would stand trial for brutal attacks, merely sentenced to between ten to 20 years when found guilty of MURDER. Families just happy to see any conviction at all talk to the media, overwhelmed by the victory, that they don’t really process how small it is in relation to their loss.
Then came a momentous ruling in 2013, aiming to send a message out to these bigots that their offences would not be tolerated: the man who raped Cape Town lesbian Millicent Gaika was sentenced to 22 years in jail.
This ruling spelled out what our justice department tried hard to sweep under the rug in fear of the whirlwind it would ignite within the legal system—because of populist attitudes, perhaps, or maybe the lack of will to offer a bit more protection for a group so vulnerable. But, one cannot stop a storm: late last year, South Africa green-lit a Hate Crime and Hate Speech Bill, which will hold perpetrators to task way before hatred can escalate to violence.
A law is no silver bullet to the end of hatred toward LGBTQ people; what’s on paper doesn’t automatically filter down to the ground. It cannot turn patriarchy on its head overnight. It certainly isn’t going to stop sticks and stones being hurled at black lesbians daily. It does, however, give them grounds for recourse and respect for their dignity—because when bigots are made to pay for the life they destroy with whatever is left of theirs, then only are they able to see its worth.
I may not know the vulnerabilities of black lesbians in the United States, but John’s murder is a narrative I can recite by heart: the official report of her death calls it an overreaction to a dispute; but, we all know she did not die over something as trivial as a bunch of fold-up chairs – nor was it an isolated incident. Her murder is one of many attacks that take place all over the world, everyday, because people are in the habit of trivializing them.