Monday, June 21, 2010

South Africa's Dykes, My World Cup Heroes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Soccer World Cup opened June 11th in South Africa, but the country's toughest players weren't even at the stadium when Bafana Bafana opened play by battling to an unexpected draw with Mexico. No, South Africa's dyke players were celebrating the event on muddy rocky fields and in front of TV sets.

The country's most well known lesbian team, the Chosen FEW, watched the match at the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) founded in 2002 to advocate for black LBT women. Their soccer team was put together two years later, and took the bronze medal both at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago and the 2008 International Gay and Lesbian FA Cup in London. In a couple of weeks, they're off to Germany for Gay Games VIII.

Their existence alone is a remarkable accomplishment, a sign of extraordinary determination from those who, as Audre Lorde put it, "were never meant to survive." In South Africa, a woman is raped every seventeen seconds, heterosexuals just because they're female, and lesbians to "correct" their sexual identity. Many lesbians end up dead, like Zoliswa Nkonyana.

An open dyke and lesbian activist, Nkonyana was tortured and murdered on February 4, 2006 after a confrontation with women who didn't want her to use the ladies toilet. She was just nineteen when she was beaten and stabbed by a group of men that followed her outside. The trial of her murderers has been postponed more than two dozen times, most recently in March, and it's hard to imagine her mother and girlfriend will ever get justice. So much for the LGBT equality enshrined in the national constitution.

Likewise, in 2008, Eudy Simelane, the openly gay former South Africa women's international footballer was raped and murdered. More than thirty dykes (that we know of) have been killed in South Africa in just this decade. Tumi Mkhuma, one of the strikers on the Chosen FEW, was also raped and beaten for being a lesbian, and was lucky to escape with her life. Like most South African rapists, her attacker was not brought to justice.

The violence comes not just from anonymous strangers. Deekay Sibanda, the team's captain and midfielder, while explaining to a journalist that they weren't allowed to play in the national women's soccer because of discrimination against lesbians, added, "Some of the women have been raped and brutalised and chased out by their families. Many had to leave education – they think lesbians will contaminate schools."

Their training conditions are no relief from that brutal reality. In Johannesburg, their practice field is a rocky mess of almost pure dirt that either raises clouds of dust, or transforms into a mass of mud and puddles. Still, it's worth it. When they step onto that field twenty-five embattled dykes are finally at home.

If you look, you'll find other dyke teams in Port Elizabeth and Capetown. On June 9, Spanish journalist Lali Cambra posted a blog entry in Madrid's daily newspaper El PaĆ­s about a match between Luleki Sizwe and Free Gender. The teams were from two black neighborhoods on the periphery of the city of Capetown. The field looked like an abandoned construction site, with bits of brick, rocks, and glass. Three players had to leave the game to get wounds treated. And by the time the match was over, everybody's legs were covered in blood. Nevertheless, in the match photos, both sides were grinning from ear to ear.

Fumeka Soldaat, the organizer of the Free Gender team told the journalist that playing soccer is one of the few times these young dykes can feel human. Young black lesbians often turn to drugs or prostitution when they're rejected and abused by their families, and can't find work. Soccer teams are hugely important to raise their self-esteem and give them a sense that they're not alone.

Still, she said, it's tough to arrange matches. There's the cost of uniforms and transportation. They have to come up with refs. And with complicated lives, it's hard for all the members to find the time to play. There's also the problem of finding any soccer field at all to host a dyke match, no matter how full of rocks and glass it is.

In particular, they have to work with local leaders to get assurances, "that there won't be homophobic displays or acts of violence." While Soldaat didn't seem thrilled by what it took to make the arrangements, she added it was a good tool for consciousness-raising, and "normalizing" lesbians in South African society.

As the World Cup continues, it's these dykes I'll be thinking about as I watch the soccer giants fall and unexpected heroes arise. Because if queers held a kind of World Cup for battling the homophobic odds with courage and grace, it would surely be South African dykes leading the pack into the final rounds.

Reminder: NYC Dyke March starts at Bryant Park, Saturday, June 26, 2010, 5 p.m.

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