In the land now freed from apartheid, a hateful prejudice persists

I believe in the power of sport — specifically, its impressive ability to frame world struggles, challenge the wrongs of humanity and unite former rivals in race and creed.

Think of Jesse Owens sprinting with muscled grace to earn four gold medals and whiz past Adolf Hitler's twisted messages of Aryan superiority in the 1936 Olympics. Or Muhammad Ali's defiant challenge to the U.S. government as a contentious objector to the Vietnam War. Or Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes," in which she did more than defeat Bobby Riggs in tennis, also striking back arrogant male attitudes that unwisely dismissed women's abilities off the court as well.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup now being held in South Africa might yet take its place in this noble history, but I'll concede it isn't likely.

No vuvuzelas will bellow for the Chosen FEW, a team of all-black lesbian footballers in and around Johannesburg. The 25 women are open about their sexuality in a country where admitting homosexuality can get a person killed.

Activists as much off the field as on, they are defiant advocates against the brutal act of "corrective rape." Corrective rape is the crazed belief that a woman can be "cured" of her homosexual leanings by forced and brutal sex. Human rights activists believe it is widespread in homophobic South Africa, yet it is largely ignored by authorities.

And it seems the practice is largely being ignored by the stars of the global phenomenon that is soccer. If just one player, say a highly regarded goalie or defender from a country less homophobic, would comment on the plight of the women, it could open avenues for awareness and eventually change.

For now, the 2008 murder of Eudy Simelane, star of South Africa's women's national soccer team, is among the few cases to receive much notice at all. After Simelane became vocal about being a lesbian and pressing for rights, her body, gang-raped and stabbed repeatedly, was found in a creek.

The struggles of lesbians in South Africa are merely a subset of widespread sexism there. Perhaps the heavy concentration on the male players competing has somehow disallowed much scrutiny of the seedier aspects of life in South Africa for women.

The country is believed to have one of the highest rates of rape in the world, with almost half of all women raped during their lifetime, according to a 2009 report on rising cases of South African collective rape by the NGO ActionAid International. The report documented 31 murders of lesbians in hate attacks since 1998, and noted that for every 25 men brought to trial for rape, only one is convicted.

Certainly such assaults, including corrective rape, happen elsewhere, including the U.S. But in the U.S., society and law enforcement does not tolerate them. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for helping retell the story of the rape and murder of transgender Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry." Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has been quoted saying that gays and lesbians are "lower than dogs and pigs." And an April report by the U.S. Department of State said corrective rape is a problem there as well.

Host countries of world events like the World Cup and the Olympics have every right to highlight the very best of their nation. South Africa boasts of wildlife preserves, beaches and vineyards. And it enjoys immense reserves of goodwill internationally, the consequence of the bloody decades-long struggle to overcome Apartheid.

Indeed, the way South Africa has overcome the legacy of institutional racism has in many ways become a model for other nations that desperately need truth and reconciliation. South Africans today enjoy the same civil liberties we enjoy in America, and even a few we don't, such as the right of gay couples to marry. Or, I should say, these rights are granted by law. Practice is another matter.

The women who share their love of soccer under the auspices of Chosen FEW are all too aware of the dangers of being openly lesbian in South Africa. It is the duty of those who struggled so long against racial oppression in that nation to denounce and punish those who rape, murder and otherwise attack their fellow citizens because of their sexual orientation. And it is the duty of us all to hold them to it.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at

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