KHAYELITSHA, South Africa — Late one night last June, Pumeza Runeyi was at home in bed with her girlfriend when she heard a pack of men outside her door. They rapped on her window and called her name in menacing voices that suggested only one thing.
Quit being a lesbian, Runeyi, 25, recalled them saying. Come on, you'll enjoy it. We're not going to hurt you. We just want to teach you to be a real woman.
The noise woke her neighbors and the men melted into the night, but the next day Runeyi, her girlfriend and their two roommates — both gay — moved out of the house and haven't returned. In Khayelitsha Township, a sea of tin-roof shacks outside Cape Town, being gay can get you beaten or raped, or worse.
There's a devastating paradox about homosexuality in South Africa: A country that boasts some of the most advanced gay-rights laws in the world has a population that's profoundly homophobic. In surveys, more than 80 percent of South Africans say same-sex relationships are "always wrong," according to the Human Sciences Research Council, an independent research organization.
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Combined with South Africa's penchant for violent crime, particularly against women, that prejudice is breeding extreme brutality.
Activist groups are alarmed at a worsening trend of gang-rapes and murders of black lesbians in poor townships, often by men who reportedly wanted to "cure them" of a condition that's seen as un-African and an affront to the traditional, male-dominated culture.
At least five such murders have occurred in the past three years, according to the Joint Working Group, a national coalition of gay-rights groups that's recorded scores of other hate crimes, including rape, assault and harassment.
"We're picking up more and more serious cases," said Emily Craven, the coordinator of the coalition. "At the moment, the women tend to be the most vulnerable because of the nature of life in the townships. It's extremely violent."
Few of the hate crimes have been thoroughly investigated, according to activists and family members. To many, it's the sad result of an ill-equipped criminal justice system and an indication of how the lofty promises of South Africa's constitution — the first to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation — aren't being fulfilled 15 years after the transition to democratic rule.
"The government isn't making a commitment to make the promises of the constitution a reality for all South Africans," said Vanessa Ludwig, the head of the Triangle Project, a leading advocacy group. "That's why so many still don't have housing, water, the economic system we should have and all those other promises."
Gay activists who speak out against the crimes are often targeted. Runeyi started being harassed after she appeared on TV to condemn the 2006 murder of a 19-year-old woman in Khayelitsha who was mocked for being a tomboy and then swarmed by a mob that beat her with golf clubs, threw bricks at her and stabbed her repeatedly.
"You hear what people say about you. They say you're not a real person; they say you're a witch; they call us names," said Runeyi, who wears her hair in short, spiky braids. "It's not nice to be a lesbian in South Africa."
Nearly every African country regards homosexuality as a crime, forbidden in legal codes held over from colonial days and backed up by predominantly conservative societies. South Africa was no different until 1996, when the new black-led government, trying to erase the stain of four decades of white apartheid rule, passed the world's most progressive constitution.
Ten years later, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize gay marriage. But debate over the bill turned acrimonious with public forums nationwide turning into platforms for homophobia. For activists, it was the first sign that they were out of step with the public.
"It does seem like our laws have rushed ahead of our society," Craven said.
Perhaps wary of upsetting their constituencies, politicians rarely speak out on the issue. Last month, ActionAid, a British-based advocacy group, said that 66 percent of women who endured anti-gay hate crimes in the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town and Khayelitsha, didn't report their attacks to the police because they thought they wouldn't be taken seriously.
One of only two lesbian murder cases to go to trial is that of Eudy Simelane, a celebrated former midfielder for South Africa's national women's soccer team and an outspoken women's activist. Last April, 31-year-old Simelane's body was discovered, half-naked and bloodied, in a creek bed in Kwa Thema, outside Johannesburg. She'd been gang-raped, beaten and stabbed 25 times.
Four men were arrested in the killing, and after months of pressure from civic groups, one of the accused who pleaded guilty went on trial in February. Prosecutors argued that the men killed Simelane because she was a lesbian who fought back "like a man." The judge disagreed, describing the incident as a robbery gone wrong, and said that Simelane's sexual orientation wasn't an issue.
The 24-year-old killer was sentenced to 31 years in prison, but it was cold comfort for Simelane's family.
"For us, it's an obvious case. They killed her because she slept with women," said Mpho Skosana, a 24-year-old cousin who grew up with Simelane. "If you saw her at night you wouldn't have attacked her unless you knew her. She was strong; she would have fought back. So to me, you don't rape a woman like that unless you want to mark that person, saying, 'That's a woman I want to teach something.'"
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