At 76-years old, Lizzie Venfolo is an perhaps unlikely champion of LGBTI rights in her Nyanga community in South Africa. Yet she has become a vocal advocate, reaching out to other grandmothers and mothers and the community at large about the importance of accepting their children, no matter what.
Lizzie’s 21-year old granddaughter, Phumeza Nkolonzi, was brutally shot and killed in her home in 2012. While the killer was never identified or brought to justice, the community believes that the murder was directly tied to the fact that Phumeza was an openly lesbian woman. Phumeza’s murder spurred Lizzie to open her heart and her home to Phumeza’s community. Lizzie saw that Phumeza’s friends were having a difficult time moving freely about the community. “They were struggling to come to the funeral…they guys were calling them names, bad luck.” She spoke with the police, who helped organize a van to take them to her place to pay their respect and the funeral. Her home became a refuge of sorts for young LGBTI youth. “Shame, they were with me all the time. They would come to me – groups and groups and groups, gathering together, maybe bring lunch, and we’d sit, talk nicely, we’d talk and they’d be happy in their heart. Our places have very rude people, even women and grannies. I said to them, they mustn’t get worried. Please, if you are going somewhere tell me so my children or my friends can escort you to the place.”
Along with seven other gogos (grannies) who had children or grandchildren who identified as LGBTI, Lizzie formed a group to support each other and their children and grandchildren, and to educate the community on the importance of acceptance. The group has now grown to 21 gogos, and they work closely with IAM’s iThemba Lam safehouse in Gugulethu, taking part in everything from PRIDE marches to community trainings around about sexual orientation and gender identity. They share their stories about how hate crimes and homophobia have affected them as parents and grandparents, with the hopes that with greater acceptance there will be fewer tragedies like Phumeza’s.
One of the gogos that Lizzie recruited was her friend, Veronica Shishuba. “[After Phumeza was killed], that’s when I was curious, thinking that if it can happen to her… now, I don’t have a child who is a lesbian… but why I stick with Lizzie is that [we] must support her whether you have or don’t have children or grandchildren who are like that, you never know.” Veronica accompanies Lizzie to the talks and events, and values the opportunities for learning. “I say this is an education to us, we learn when we go out with her. There’s talks, there’s speeches, people say their stories, there’s something that we learn – instead of staying in the house. Staying in the house you become little.” The gogos often speak with families in the community who are struggling to cope with their children’s sexual or gender identity. “I might meet someone who is ill-treating their child or her daughter or grandchild. Then I’d sit her down and say no, this is not the way, you cannot treat your child like this way. They are a human being, they didn’t ask for this, God the creator did this. We don’t know, but we must accept a person as a person… You can’t pull a person, can’t force a person, so we always try and explain.”
Lizzie also has the support and backing of her church and its rector in her work with the LGBTI community. “Most of the churches say they cannot be in the church community, but [in] my church we love them, the rector loves them. I’m very happy for that, you can come in, you are welcome. You are also going to worship God’s words….I’m lucky because my church and the community want them, and it’s nice when you feel wanted.”
Lizzie wishes that Phumeza could have felt free to share her sexual orientation with her when she was alive. “My heart was so sore – why didn’t she tell me, ‘Grandma, I’m like this, these are my friends.’ I didn’t hate them, I didn’t hate nobody…they are God’s creations. I love them as I loved myself.” Today, Lizzie and the other gogos are role models within their community of love and inclusion of diversity. For many LGBTI individuals, the gogos are providing the love and support that they haven’t’ received from their biological families, becoming their surrogate parents and grandparents. Lizzie says that she would tell other parents and grandparents struggling to come to terms with their children’s sexual orientation that “… we must be happy, because what God creates, he knows what he is doing. We must accept them and we must love them…”