The indirect consequence of her visibility as a queer woman in sport
By Motlatsi Motseoile
Hlengiwe Buthelezi was thrown into the limelight after her momentous win at the Gay Games 2006 in Chicago, United States of America. At those Games, she scooped 7 gold medals – a moment to celebrate. She says in the days that followed that achievement, she was reported on in the media and was excited to come back to South Africa and continue celebrating. But what was meant to be a celebration soon turned into turmoil for her. Her return and her win were not met with joy but she was met with backlash – her sexuality took centre stage and not her athleticism. These events might have been the catalyst to her activism in sport and which further spurred her in other rights based work.
“My return from Chicago after winning 7 gold medals and how the media was reporting led to me losing my team, my club and sponsorship. So it did not go how I thought it would go” she shares. The impact on her personally was a diminished mental health and weight gain, which would slow her down as a runner. But she says she had to fight her personal struggles to get back into the game. She says she made the turning point to focus on running competitions that would be queer friendly, mostly the Gay Games, which helped build her confidence. While it was not an overnight process, she knew that the only way to continue pursuing athletics as a profession, something she was personally passionate about, was to find safe spaces. This resulted in the realisation that there was no similar platform in the country and that is what led to her founding KZN LGBT Recreation. And this is part of her mission today, to ensure that there is increased participation and safe spaces for sports participation for LGBTQ people. Her activism in the sports world has made it easy for emerging sports stars to come out with some level of ease and find some support. It is her primary calling, she says to ensure that young people can take part in any sport without fearing that being publicly queer will lead to their exclusion or victimisation within sport.
The indirect consequence of her visibility as a queer woman in sport has been that she became a leader in the LGBTQ community. The work has resulted in Buthelezi becoming a voice not just for inclusive sports but further to become a leader and voice standing against homophobic violence and gender-based violence(GBV). She says this was something she didn’t foresee but she embraces – because safety cannot exist in isolation, we have to be safe in our communities and in sports. She says hate crimes are a big issue in South Africa, she is part of the queer community collective that is trying to bring attention to the rising levels of hate crimes and murders of LGBTQ people, especially in Black communities. She says the answer to this is the Hate Crimes Bill, a legislation that has divided the South African government and the LGBTQ community. The Bill, if passed, will ensure that hate crimes, particularly against LGBTQ people are properly identified and those convicted are harshly sentenced. But her work, she chuckles, has gone beyond the LGBTQ community “I have become a leader not just among queer people but now get called in the community when someone has been violated or raped, I provide support and a shoulder to parents when their children are in these situations – even if they are not queer”. She welcomes this development and says she is up to the task.
The challenges are mounting and never ending – in sports, in the fight for safe communities, in the battle against GBV and she says she is running the course. She laments police stations, public spaces and even the media where she is invited often to speak against homophobia. Her personal safety is often compromised by this hypervisibility but she says that’s the price she has to pay to see through the mission, she is unrelenting. She will continue to provide a voice and support when a queer person is murdered, to advocate for the passing of the Hate Crimes Bill and to demand that communities are safe for all, queer people and other vulnerable people.
Her vision in the long term is the expansion of Afro Games, which she hopes will become the African equivalent of the Olympics and be inclusive. She admits that while there is legal reform in some countries, especially in the SADC countries, there is still victimisation at a social level. She believes that sport has the potential to change mindsets of people about LGBTQ identities and chart the course for inclusion in sport – across the board, as well as our communities. She is hopeful that very soon, in South Africa, the Hate Crime legislation will be passed and this will make her happy.