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Lost in TRANSlation: Transgender Justice in South Africa

Project Overview

Empowering transgender activists in South Africa to creatively and effectively confront hate crimes and sexual violence.

Identifying the Problem

In recent years, there has been a significant surge in the social movements and governments in the Western world that have come out in support of LGBT rights abroad. South Africa’s Constitution is the most progressive in the world when it comes to LGBT rights, and it is often celebrated by the international community as being an exemplar for a country in the Global South. However, this narrative ignores the persistent violence faced by most of South Africa’s black sexual and gender minorities. In fact, the increase in support for LGBT rights across the world has been accompanied by an increase in violence directed against this population. One particular form of such violence is “corrective rape,” which involves targeting black gender non-conforming people and inflicting sexual violence upon them in an attempt to “fix” them and make them more “African.”

Alok has felt uncomfortable with the types of assumptions being made by the “global” LGBT movement, most notably that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people exist all across the world and face the same types of discrimination. He was concerned that the same mistakes that have historically been made by white feminists, in assuming the existence of a global “sisterhood,” were being made by the global LGBT movement. It was important to Alok to learn more from Global South LGBT activists about the situation on the ground, in order for him to better understand how to effectively pursue solidarity work.

Creating A Solution

Alok’s project sought to push the discussion around “lesbian corrective rape” beyond sexual identity and into thinking more about how gender plays a role in this violence. They spent several months in South Africa volunteering with Gender DynamiX, the first African-based human rights organization with a focus on the transgender community.  Through their volunteer work, they was able to better understand the situation and what the current conversation around these issues looks like. As part of this work, Alok participated in many studies for the community on issues like HIV, health care access, safe sex and access to knowledge. After doing this work and conducting interviews with LGBT activists across South Africa, he hosted a workshop and discussion for staff members that addressed hate crimes and gender non-conformity. 

They structured the workshop and discussion to address the extent to which sexual violence such as “corrective rape” is also an attack on gender non-conformity, rather than strictly an attack on gays and lesbians. What is publicized is that “butch” or “effeminate” gays and lesbians are the most common targets. Alok wanted to work with the community to think about these hate crimes more as gender policing, and to then assess how this affects the community’s response strategy. They found that framing the violence this way allows the community to make connections with multiple social movements and think more about the right to gender autonomy in the context of other human rights struggles.

Alok found that the community really appreciated this type of framing because of its many implications. First, many transgender and other gender non-conforming folks were feeling excluded by advocacy that only focused on violence against “women” and “lesbians” because such framing merged their experiences with violence. Second, it is an important step forward because it acknowledges that not all “lesbians” or “queer people” are targeted; instead most victims are those who violate gender roles/expectations. Third, the way Alok framed the violence allows the community to build stronger connections with other social movements – including the women's movement – because the question becomes ones about gender self-determination and autonomy. Finally, Alok’s framing of the issue challenges the way that the community thinks about and funds violence against LGBT people, especially at the international level. “It may not be useful for us to provide funding for specific 'communities' or 'identities,' but we should rather focus on how to fund to reduce particular conditions like violence more holistically,” they say.

Gender DynamiX and the larger community were very receptive to Alok’s approach because it allowed the community to think more about the strategies that could be adopted at a systematic level. Following the workshop, the group had many conversations about what it is about violating gender norms that is so transgressive as to warrant violence. The group discussed just how deeply entrenched gender roles have become in post-colonial South Africa, how this results from a history of missionary and settler colonialism, and how in order to end violence against queer people in the long term, the community also has to re-imagine masculinity and heterosexuality. Following the workshop and discussion, Alok and their colleagues wrote a statement for the organization about hate crimes and strategized on how to combat them over the next few years. 

The experience greatly influenced the way Alok understood what it means to do transnational solidarity work. They were discouraged to learn that most South Africans think that the United States is the ideal place to be LGBT. They did not recognize how most LGBT people of color in the United States are suffering from criminalization, incarceration and police brutality. The only narratives of LGBT life they had received were white and middle-class narratives. “This is unfortunate because it prevents the American LGBT movement from building global solidarity among LGBT people of color – many of whom are facing similar issues of violence and regulation,” they say.

Lessons Learned

Alok learned that South African activists are tired of Westerners coming in to “research” them and “help out” instead of actually giving time and work to the country's organizations. They recognized that some of the most important work they did with their project was not telling others what to do, but rather being told what to do. “Doing that 'grunt' work in the organization is more important than you might think,” they say. During the time Alok spent on their project, they also recognized how much Western funding and involvement in the region has been detrimental for local LGBT politics. They returned to the United States with a commitment to re-imagine the way that the West “funds” international social movements in order to make sure the organizations on the ground are actually able to prioritize the work that is best for them rather than the work that becomes prioritized from a Western-centric agenda. They encourage others interested in global solidarity work to also consider the various perspectives of their own movement’s goals.


Alok raised $6,000 to cover all of the personal expenses relating to carrying out this project, including travel to South Africa and lodging during their time there. They were able to secure all of the necessary funding through grants from Stanford University, which they were attending at the time of this project. Other than personal expenses, there were no other costs related to this project.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2011

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