Families are biggest perpetrators of LGBTQi+ ‘conversion’ practices
He grabbed me closer to him while I slid back on the chair and said: ‘I’m correcting you.’ At that moment my eyes were glued on the wall clock of the church. The ticking sound diverted my thoughts and pain that I was enduring.”
Lerato Mokou, a 23-year-old lesbian woman from KwaThema in the East of Johannesburg, has lived to tell of the traumatic events at the hands of a man of the cloth. Being a lesbian and growing up in a religious family was one of Lerato’s worst fears, especially as her grandmother was by then a church leader.
Mokou’s experience is not unique. Others have been documented in a recent study conducted by the Pretoria-based LGBTQi+ rights group Access Chapter 2, funded by human rights group OutRight Action International.
The organisation is running a three-year project on so-called conversion practices in South Africa and recently traversed the country for the study, led by Professor Anthony Brown, of the University of Johannesburg, to conceptualise the understanding of conversion practices.
“Conversion therapy” may be a term South Africans are, unfortunately, familiar with. But Access Chapter 2 rejects the idea that it’s therapy, preferring to use the word “practices”. The word “therapy”, the organisation says, implies a person has a pathology that needs to be investigated or corrected. The organisation distances itself from language that pathologises the LGBTQI+ community and uses the word “practices” to describe all forms of conversion attempts and abuses.
“One notable thing that came out of this study is the horrible experiences that LGBTQI+ members were subjected to,” says Mpho Bontse, an associate responsible for running the project at Access Chapter 2.
Bontse said their findings and the data collected in the study shows that families were the biggest perpetrators of conversion practices, followed by community members, psychologists and religious and traditional healers.
The study showed that 43% of the participants had had a session with a religious representative, while 12% were subjected to corrective rape. A worrying 19% of participants said that religious leaders are perpetrators of conversion practices.
Mokou’s coming-out journey was not received well by a church leader who she trusted. Instead, it was the beginning of a painful road that left her with invisible scars.
“I was not only raped, I lost my virginity and I got infected with HIV by one of the church’s leaders,” said Mokou.
“He raped me by the altar, the same sacred space that is used as a platform by many religious leaders to attack homosexuals,” she said, trying to hold back tears.
In Diepkloof, Soweto, we spoke to Reverend Nokuthula Dhladhla, founder of Ashes to Purpose and a global interfaith ambassador, who is also part of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.
Dhladhla was ensconced in the church but when church leaders discovered she was a lesbian, she was subjected to a process of prayers, embarrassment and discrimination for six months.
After enduring the ordeal of moving between being ostracised and conversion therapy at the hands of religious leaders, Dhladhla faced an even more traumatic experience. She was raped.
“After the church found out what happened to me, they told me that it was a punishment from God. I was hurt because I thought I was going to get sympathy and I decided to take my own life,” said Dhladhla.
The Access Chapter 2 study found that conversion practices similar to what Mokou and Dhladhla were subjected to had various psychological effects.
A support structure is needed after going through a traumatic experience. Unfortunately for Mokou, there was nothing.
“After he finished raping me, he pointed a gun at me and threatened to kill me if I told anyone about what he had done,” said Mokou, her hands shaking.
“Although the church was aware of what had happened, they never bothered to help me in any way. I decided to leave the church. My studies are keeping me busy, and I have moved on with my life. Nevertheless, I will never forget the pain caused by this pastor.”
There are different coping mechanisms to handle the effects of conversion practices and Dhladhla found solace in reading and understanding the Bible, accepting herself and having a connection with God.
Dhladhla completed a diploma in theology and became Reverend Dhladhla. She founded an association called Ashes to Purpose, to provide refuge for LGBTQI+ communities who are not only subjected to conversion practices but are also facing a litany of social ills.
“Being present for LGBTQI+ people who have been marginalised, stigmatised and discriminated against is what my ministry is all about,” Dhladhla said.
“It saddens me to realise that religious spaces are meant to be a safe space but it’s a place full of hatred and horrible experiences,” she added.
She said more religious leaders are now open to dialogues that are meant to push towards the banning of conversion practices, and they are working on a project with Global Interface Network and the Council of Churches in the Southern Africa Development Community.
Although the study shows that fewer than 1% of traditional representatives are perpetrators of conversion practices, 7% of the study’s participants are victims who were forced to consult traditional healers.
As we braved the scorching sun in Fourways, we were welcomed by the smell of imphepho (incense), which led us to Makhosi’s indumba (consulting room).
Sphamandla Gwala, a traditional healer and a consultant, also known as Makhosi or Gogo (a name used for greeting or referring to a traditional healer) ushered us into his tiny consulting room with mostly blue and red materials spread on the floor. In one corner of the room was a shelf with traditional herbs, another held burning candles.
In the palm of his hand, Makhosi held a small tub while he fed snuff into his nose and dragged it into his nasal cavity like his very life depended on it. Intermittently, he waved his ishoba, a ceremonial stick, above his shoulders.
“African spirituality has no gender. As healers, we need to come together as one group where we provide people with therapy who are coming out as gay,” said Makhosi.
Makhosi expressed concern about traditional healers being perpetrators of conversion practices. He believes that being a healer is about moving from darkness into light.
“Conversion practice is detrimental to the society, to one’s health. It’s killing the society and destroying one’s self-esteem.”
He emphasised that traditional healers needed to be educated more about homosexuality. Further to that, religious leaders, traditional healers and psychologists must unite and discuss spirituality and homosexuality to break down the effects that conversion practices have in society.
The study also showed that 49% of family members are perpetrators of conversion practices.
“I was forced to wear a dress because church people needed to see that I was a girl, and I was taken into a back room, where some people were standing and some sitting. In the midst of all this I was confused as to why prayers were specifically directed at me,” said 31-year-old Zinhle Nkosi, a lesbian woman from Zondi, Soweto.
Nkosi related how she was emotionally abused by her mother for almost two years and how she was forced to convert through exorcism by a pastor known to her mother.
“After the exorcism was performed on me, I decided to cut my mum out of my life completely. I went through depression, at some point I had suicidal thoughts because I was no longer at home and I was dealing with a lot of things alone.”
Nkosi is doing her third year at Unisa, and at the same time focusing on her career as a chef and an events coordinator. This has helped her deal with her past experiences. She is also receiving support from her wife. The couple married in 2021.
Regarding support structures, the study found that 21% sought help from LGBTQI+ civil society organisations and 57% from a friend.
Dr Mmamonstheng “Dulcy” Rakumakoe, founder of Quadcare, says they deal with cases mainly from transgender people who are often subjected to conversion practices.
“When they come to us, they are quite distressed and depressed and that’s when we bring in psychologists to help them deal with the trauma of different types of conversion practices.”
Rakumakoe said that conversion practices will come to an end when people are more educated about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Canada passed legislation banning the use of harmful conversion therapy practices in December 2021. Commenting on this, Jabu Pereira, the director of the media advocacy organisation Iranti, said: “It’s hugely welcoming with the way they stated the reasons for banning conversion therapy including in South Africa and across the world, because it is also condemned by mental health practitioners such as psychologists across the world and it is regarded as a discriminatory and irregular practice.”
The next step for Access Chapter 2 is to identify allies in policy-making spaces to create legislation that embraces and speaks directly to the banning of conversion practices.
This report was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gender Justice Reporting Initiative.