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Some conscripts were tied to trees, had shoe polish rubbed around their genitals, then were displayed. Related Gully Coverage

Forced Sex-Changes
South Africa.


Property of the State:
The Torture of Queer Soldiers in the Apartheid Military

by Kelly Cogswell

This piece is based on the ground-breaking 1999 South African study "The Aversion Project: Human rights abuses of gays and lesbians in the South African Defense Force by health workers during the apartheid era." The study uncovers abuse against white gay and lesbian soldiers. The fate of black and mixed race queer soldiers remains to be studied.

AUGUST 25, 2000. In 1948 white Afrikaners of the National Party came to power claiming God had ordained them to rule South Africa. The National Party then consolidated power by stripping black South Africans of whatever human rights they had left. They built up their army and used it liberally, merging patriotic duty with fundamentalist Christian zeal until there was no difference between them.

While this era is well known for its black victims, little information is available about how the apartheid army also abused its white gay conscripts. In June 1997 South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acknowledged that human rights violations against gays had occurred on a scale much larger than anyone had thought.

Effects of Militarization
The militarization of apartheid South Africa increased as resistance to apartheid grew at home, and liberation movements sprang up in other African countries. The National Party quickly came to see itself as facing, in the 1977 words of Defense Minister Magnus Malan, a "'total onslaught' against the country and its inhabitants... involving so many different fronts...that it has gained the telling, but horrifying name of the total war."

To fight the total war, the South African Defence Force (SADF), needed cannon fodder. After 1957, conscription by ballot was introduced. In 1967, the government instituted universal conscription for all white males over the age of 16. Duration of service was gradually increased from nine months to two years. Despite incredible homophobia and penalties against homosexual activity, even gay men were not exempted. Women, mixed race, black, and Indian people were eventually allowed or recruited into the military, but the military remained predominantly white male.

The growing militarization was reflected not only by the increase in bodies holding guns, but in an increasing rigidity on the ideological front. White had to be ultra-white. Men had to be supermen, women superwomen. Drugs were evil because they created bonds across what had seemed like insurmountable barriers of race. And sinful, criminal, diseased homosexuals, despite the fact that they were required to serve, were as much enemy as the African National Congress whose leader Nelson Mandela was destined for decades in jail.

The Conscript
In the movies, the stereotyped sergeant always says ominously to his fresh, crew-cutted recruits, "you're mine, now." In South Africa, in the decades of apartheid conscription, they meant it. Young men, mere teenagers, were sold into slavery by their society. They couldn't quit, walk away, or object to anything unless they wanted to face beatings, rape, jail, electroshocks, or worse.

Conscripts, as young as 16, were taught to be fierce, brutal, and insular. Hazing was ferocious, especially of the least masculine, or gung-ho conscripts. Some were tied to trees, had shoe polish rubbed around their genitals, then were displayed to the whole regiment or platoon. Others were beaten "to make men of them", or raped.

In another violent bonding ritual, groups of conscripts would arrange to go into white civilian bars, pick fights, beat up civilians, and gang-rape women. Sometimes they were actually ordered to do this by their commanders, so the young men could learn the vital difference between "them" and "us".

On occasion commanders ordered circle jerks as part of bonding efforts. At least once, according to The Resister publication, an NCO at the Maritzkop camp forced conscripts to drop their trousers "and 'commit indecent sexual acts' with each other." Rape was an all-purpose tool used for everything from persecuting gays to torturing captive soldiers.

Conscripts who objected to any of this sometimes found themselves in military psychiatric hospitals being treated for abnormalities.

Faced with that environment, and no way out, some conscripts seriously abused alcohol or drugs, or attempted to commit suicide. Many of those succeeded. No one knows how many of these were gay.

The Homosexual Flash Point in the Apartheid Army
As if the military weren't bad enough already, a confluence of nasty elements made the torture of many gay and transgender conscripts almost inevitable.

The first factor was that South Africa's military (and civil) law labeled male homosexuals criminals and threatened them with capital punishment. Add to this the army's complete control over its conscripts, the South African Dutch Reformed Church and Gereformeerde Kerk's view that homosexuals were sinners, the medical profession pathologizing of them as diseased, the white Christian National Party's perception of itself as attacked from without, which heightened their already vicious intolerance of dissent or difference within, and you've got a lot of Mengeles on your hands.

Given all this, the official practice of reporting suspected homosexuals to both the military's South African Medical Services (SAMS), and also to chaplains, was simply a preliminary to torture.

When forced to choose between the public shame of being handed over to the South African Police and prosecuted in a criminal court, or being treated in a psychiatric hospital, thousands of conscripts 'consented' to be treated by SAMS, especially if they themselves had internalized homophobia.

Some may have chosen differently if they'd known career military doctors in SAMS would be implicated in the torture of captives, including the use of electric shock treatments, and drugs banned by international treaties. Some SAMS medical doctors, along with military psychologists and psychiatrists, even took the initiative in developing new torture techniques.

Or maybe they wouldn't have. These homosexuals, white gay or effeminate boys of 17 or 18, may have expected to be treated better than black enemy captives. They weren't. They were shuttled off to psychiatric wards along with white military objectors, drug users, liberals, and the truly distressed, all of whom were considered disturbed and abnormal, and were given heavy doses of Valium.

None of them had it easy, but gay conscripts suffered the worst. The 'treatments' these young homosexuals endured included Clockwork Orange-type aversion therapy with plenty of electric shocks—also done to drug users. Some homosexuals were chemically castrated without their knowledge. Others were physically castrated. That process was sometimes followed by the implantation of testicular tissue from a straight man. There were lobotomies, hormone injections, and complete sex changes. Few, if any, were truly consensual.

Lesbians or butch women who had volunteered for the military faced the same tortures, including forced sex changes.

When one set of parents complained, an unidentified psychiatrist reportedly told them "While your son is in the army, he is the property of the state."

The long-term physical and psychological damage to these service people has been immense, sometimes so bad that they've committed suicide even after years of therapy.

Excuses and Solutions
In the post-apartheid era, it is easy to speculate that had the medical force, SAMS, been answerable to the Department of Health, and not the Department of Defense, many of the abuses wouldn't have happened. One imagines that the Department of Health would have required them to discontinue the homophobic policy of 'treating' homosexuals when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM II (1973), widely used in South Africa, deleted homosexuality as a mental disorder.

It's also possible that had the medics not been conscripts, and thereby not forced to obey orders or face jail themselves, they might have objected more strenuously to the unethical treatment of homosexuals.

These arguments, while they may be partially true, do not take into account the great pressure of cultural homophobia which still legitimizes the torture of gay and lesbian children everywhere—including in the United States—with electric shock treatments, brutal beatings, and endless sedation.

Also ignored is the pressure that would have been exerted on civilian health care workers from the brutal, homophobically Christian apartheid-era military which saw homosexuals as security risks, therefore potential traitors, as well as termites eating at the brutal male woodenness of the ideal soldier.

While some civilian health care workers may have been emboldened by their hypothetical distance, many still would have complied with the brutally persuasive military which had no concern for ethics of any kind, flagrantly ignoring international treaties on the treatment of prisoners and noncombatants as they tortured, maimed, bombed hospitals and medical vehicles.

Old Dogs, New Tricks?
Things have changed a great deal for South African lesbians and gay men of all races. At least on paper. The National Party was evicted from office in 1994, and the 1996 Bill of Rights of the new South African Constitution guarantees freedom of sexual orientation.

The question is how to protect and promote these rights, especially in the military and medical institutions that only a few years ago produced doctors who could say "I am first a soldier, and then a psychiatrist." Especially when a great many of the doctors that perpetrated these deeds are still unrepentantly at large, and even unnamed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee created to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid era seems to have left apartheid's medical collaborators largely unscathed, especially those responsible for crimes against queers.

Before Reconciliation can begin in this instance, there needs to be far more Truth.

Related links:

For "The Aversion Project" (pdf format) go to Behind the Mask, a website on gay and lesbian affairs in (southern) Africa.

For a look at the effectiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For Apartheid Military Forced Gay Troops Into Sex-Change Operations

For Complete Coverage Africa

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

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