South Africa: Apartheid Military Forced Gay Troops Into Sex-Change Operationsby Ana Simo
AUGUST 25, 2000. South Africa’s apartheid army forced white lesbian and gay soldiers to undergo ‘sex-change’ operations in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, and submitted many to chemical castration, electric shock, and other unethical medical experiments. Although the exact number is not known, former apartheid army surgeons estimate that as many as 900 forced ‘sexual reassignment’ operations may have been performed between 1971 and 1989 at military hospitals, as part of a top-secret program to root out homosexuality from the service.
Army psychiatrists aided by chaplains aggressively ferreted out suspected homosexuals from the armed forces, sending them discretely to military psychiatric units, chiefly ward 22 of 1 Military Hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte, near Pretoria. Those who could not be ‘cured’ with drugs, aversion shock therapy, hormone treatment, and other radical ‘psychiatric’ means were chemically castrated or given sex-change operations.
Although several cases of lesbian soldiers abused have been documented so far—including one botched sex-change operation—most of the victims appear to have been young, 16 to 24-year-old white males drafted into the apartheid army. Between 1967 and 1991, all white males over the age of 16 were conscripted in South Africa. The apartheid regime, which began in 1948, officially ended in 1994.
Alleged Torturer Cozy in Canada
Details of the medical torture program were revealed in “The Aversion Project”, a recent 132-page study, and in a chilling investigative series just published by The Daily Mail and Guardian. The South African newspaper identified the head of the program as Colonel Aubrey Levin, former chief psychiatrist at the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital, who left for Canada in the mid-1990’s as the apartheid system crumbled.
Dr. Levin is now Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry (Forensic Division) at the University of Calgary’s Medical School. He is also in private practice, as a member in good standing of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.
Dr. Levin admitted on July 28 to The Daily Mail and Guardian that he had practiced ‘aversion therapy’ on young gay South African soldiers, not with electric shocks, as his victims claim, but with an “electronic device” that caused “a slight, very slight, discomfort in the arm.” However, he strenuously denied that gender reassignment operations were ever performed by the apartheid army and said that no one was ever forced to submit to treatment: “We did not keep human guinea pigs like Russian communists, we only had patients who wanted to be cured and were there voluntarily.”
Since that interview, Levin has retained Grant Stapon, a top Canadian media lawyer, and is now threatening to sue the South African newspaper in a Canadian court. Only one Canadian publication has so far picked up the story—they have also been threatened with a lawsuit. The story has been ignored by the wire services and by the usually avid U.S. media, including—incredibly— its gay wing. (A translation of The Daily Mail and Guardian article outing Levin was posted on July 31 on the home page of the U.S.-owned French-language Gay.com site, and has since been relegated to their archives.)
Some of the charges against Dr. Levin are not new.
The War Resister, a publication of the Committee of South African War Resisters, first blew the whistle on him in January 1987, for his alleged use of forced aversion shock therapy against gay conscripts.
Untouched by Charges of Abuse
Ten years later, in June 1997, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission named Levin for possible “gross human rights abuses” for the same reason (no mention was then made of the ‘sex-change’ program). However, the Commission apparently made no effort to serve him a subpoena. By then, Levin was already in Canada. Levin could still be prosecuted in South Africa for his alleged human rights abuses because he never applied the Commission for amnesty, nor was granted it.
Dr. Levin is not the only apartheid-era military psychiatrist linked to human rights abuses who continues to practice. A psychiatrist working under him at Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital, who in the 1970’s allegedly helped chemically castrate a young gay conscript named Jean Erasmus, still practices in Cape Town. A depressed Erasmus killed himself last year after telling his story to an Amnesty International representative in Pretoria.
Erasmus’ story is recorded in “The Aversion Project: Human rights abuses of gays and lesbians in the South African Defence Force by health workers during the apartheid era.” The study was commissioned by the Medical Research Council, the Health and Human Rights Project, the Centre for Epidemiological Research in Southern Africa, the South African Medical Research Council, the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE), and the Gay and Lesbian Archives.
In the Archives collection there are two boxes of papers documenting the 1968 Immorality Amendment Bill. Item B106 is an eager letter from a loyal member of the ruling, pro-apartheid National Party who claims to have successfully ‘treated’ homosexuals and wants to be invited to address the all-white Parliament on this subject. The letter is signed by Dr. Aubrey Levin, “medical practitioner and psychiatrist in training.”
Government Probe Asked
As more gruesome evidence continued to surface, the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) asked the government on August 14 to set up a commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of the medical torture allegations against lesbians and gay men by the apartheid army, including the charges of illegal ‘sex-change’ operations. The call was supported by the South African Council of Churches, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, the South African Catholic Bishops Conference, and Amnesty International.
The Coalition, which represents more than 74 lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual organizations in South Africa, wants the commission of inquiry to find out the names of all victims and all perpetrators of these atrocities, as well as the number of deaths. It also wants compensation and follow-up treatment for the survivors and their families.
“Many of the perpetrators of these acts may still be in the service of the State, practicing medicine or in the service of the South African National Defense Force. This is unacceptable,” the Coalition said in a letter to the South African Minister of Defense requesting the probe.
In a statement released on August 16, the Coalition criticized the South African medical establishment for its inaction. Although information about the aversion project had been available for some time, and some medical military staff “at the time of the alleged abuses” had reported them, “the medical establishment has never investigated any of these allegations,” it said.
The South African medical establishment’s ethical lethargy may well be self-serving: it has never been held fully accountable for its widespread violations of human rights under apartheid. By mid-1997, when Dr. Levin was named, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had only heard a measly 28 cases of medical doctors accused of helping the apartheid security forces.
“We believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are many hundreds of cases of violations that need to be investigated,” Dr. Leslie London, a member of the Health and Human Rights Project, told the media at the time. These abuses were not isolated events involving a “few bad apples,” but “arose in a context in which the entire fabric of the health sector was permeated by apartheid,” he added.
The bad apple cart will be nastily overturned if South Africa’s government does the right thing and launches an investigation into the alleged anti-gay atrocities. One can almost hear the deafening silence of the medical establishments in two continents as it closes ranks.
For The Daily Mail and Guardian complete coverage.
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.