Thandeka Radebe (31) is a Youth Ambassador, focusing on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) sector. She is originally from Mpophomeni in KwaZulu-Natal.
"As youth, we are not only infected and affected by HIV, but we are also located within a complex set of social ills such as violence, youth unemployment and gender-based discrimination, which are all root causes of HIV.
A young woman who tries and fails repeatedly to find a job is vulnerable to 'blessers' – older men with money. She needs to engage in this kind of transactional relationship to survive and help put food on the table at home.
We also see a sharp rise in HIV infection among young men who are not gay, but are sleeping with other men just to get money. These young men are not educated about keeping themselves safe when they have sex with other men.
Many lesbians in the townships do not feel safe in their own communities because of this thing called 'corrective rape' − when men attack and rape lesbians, saying that they will 'convert them to be straight'.
As a woman in South Africa, you are not safe. If you are a lesbian, you also have to worry about being targeted by people who want to rape and kill you for being a lesbian. These are the things we are facing.
So, it's important that we understand this full picture when we are trying to address HIV. If we don't understand this complex context, it will be difficult for initiatives to make any headway.
I'm lucky in that I personally have never encountered any real negativity or lack of acceptance for being lesbian; but across the country, especially in townships, I notice that there is still an 'us and them' situation between homosexuals and heterosexuals. People say that they accept you, but you will still hear homophobic comments.
Sometimes the people making these comments don't seem to understand how prejudiced they are. So, if they see a picture of a lesbian couple, you will hear comments like 'Oh, she's so beautiful. How can she be a lesbian? What a waste!' How is a woman being loved by another woman 'a waste'? Because she is not sexually available to men?
People also seem to think that if I'm a lesbian I'm not actually a woman. They literally say: 'I don't see you as a woman'. This is not real acceptance − it is maybe tolerance. Those are not the same thing.
There's a long journey ahead and a lot still to be done. People still think that 'intersex' is the same as 'transgender'.* Lesbians are still called 'gays', even though that is a word that refers to male homosexuals. Bisexual people are called 'twin plugs' which is very disrespectful.
I joined HST's team of SA SURE Youth Ambassadors because I want to educate young people about LGBTI issues and human rights in general.
We need to deal with the many root causes of HIV to put a serious dent into this epidemic.
* 'Intersex' is a general term used for a variety of DSDs (Disorders of Sex Development) are medical conditions involving the way the reproductive system develops from infancy (and before birth) through young adulthood.
* 'Transgender' relates to a person who suffers gender dysphoria or a feeling that they have been 'born into the wrong body'.
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