“I’m a poor, queer black woman who has no other choice. I have to go back and make sure that fees fall,” says University of Cape Town (UCT) student Lindiwe Dhlamini.
Students in the #FeesMustFall movement who identify as queer, transgender or gender-nonconforming say they face multiple forms of violence.
“There is the institutional violence you have to deal with, the violence by cops, [but there is also] comrade-to-comrade violence and sexual harassment. All types of violence you can think of, black queer bodies have taken it,” says Dhlamini.
In a movement that has pushed for inclusivity, there’s a sad irony that protesters are among those who’ve turned on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LBGTI) people because of their identity.
Dhlamini is among what UCT student activist Nigel Patel says are the “severely diminished” number of queer and trans people who have, to a large extent, been sidelined. Previously, the movement included a number of such activists.
Tiger Maremela, a former Rhodes University student activist, puts this down to the fact that queer and trans people have been sidelined. “The movement as a whole has burned so many of us that we are just not at the forefront any longer,” they say.
University of the Witwatersrand activist Anzio Jacobs, who identifies as queer, agrees. “Many queer people are fatigued with having to teach others about the need for inclusion. [Some] heterosexual or cisgendered people are not willing to learn.”
This, says the assistant director of institutional research at the University of the Free State (UFS), Dr Thierry Luescher, is a result of the “reassertion of male dominance within the movement, which brought with it a marginalisation of LGBTIQ voices”.
“The movement started out essentially in the hopes of humanising higher education, but now a key group is not being taken into account,” he says. “At Wits and UFS, for example, there have been critiques of the movement.
“During the recent handover of a memorandum, a protest was held by women and LGBTI people who were objecting to being excluded. So we are seeing counter-movements develop – something that we never had last year.”
This is Leigh-Ann Naidoo’s experience. The Wits student, who identifies as queer, says: “It seems accurate to say that in the current iteration of the protest, we have a more limited struggle, focusing more on privatisation of higher education, with class and race again central as its main focus areas.
“This is very important, of course, but now so many like me are being told ‘don’t bring your issues here’. But we can’t simply say it’s a distraction to talk about rape culture. Or it is a distraction to talk about homophobia.”
Naidoo says the #FeesMustFall movment was founded on three pillars of the #RhodesMustFall campaign: a clear black consciousness agenda, Pan-Africanism and black radical feminism.
“Intersectionality, which is a black radical feminism concept, allows for marginalised voices to come through – the voices of women, queer and trans people, disabled and poor people. This was an amazing moment, because we were not only looking at class and race as systems of oppression but trying to ensure that a space is created for women and all marginalised people. A space where class and race are not the only lenses through which we look at oppression.”
Lungile Sigasa, a UCT student representative council candidate who identifies as non-binary (and therefore prefers the pronoun they), says there are definitely fewer transgender and queer activists involved in this year’s protest movement. Sigasa took a six-month break until they felt they had “the strength to come back
“A lot of [LGBTI activists] decided not to be actively involved on the ground this year because of the attitudes and various forms of violence they faced, even though they still support the movement. But there are a few who are trying to uphold intersectional views within this heavily patriarchal context.”
Jacobs agrees, saying there seem to be strong patriarchal tendencies in the #FeesMustFall movement. He adds, however: “There are also many men who are aware of the importance of intersectionality.”
Sensitive to the importance of an intersectional approach by the movement, Tshepang Mahlatsi, a student leader at UFS who identifies as a heterosexual male, says: “There are LGBTI people still within the movement who are still at the forefront and their involvement is recognised. The call for free education is a call that encompasses everyone.”
This is where Naidoo hopes the focus of this year’s movement will, in part, return to. “We will not allow patriarchy to run amok in our movement. This is a challenge to all within the movement, including myself,” she says.
Equally hopeful for this change and aware of the work needed to affect it, Maremela adds: “Everybody collectively needs to try to ensure the movement is as inclusive as possible. Not only for queer and trans people, but all people – especially those who are still marginalised. The movement needs to create a place for all because if we really want to liberate people, we have to liberate all people.”
Given the difficulties with which trans and queer activists have to contend, why do they continue their participation in the movement – albeit in reduced numbers?
Says Jacobs: “For us still at the forefront, there are two reasons. First, some of us can get away with it because we hold a certain level of ‘privilege’ – presenting as cisgendered. Second, when we’re spoken down to or face some form of violence, we adopt the view that it’s not worth internalising that violence.”
For others, there is no other choice.
“I can’t call my family to help me out with the money I owe the university because they don’t have the money. I keep going back because I hope to be the last person in my family to be facing this violence. I worry about being the only person on the street of the township I come from with access to higher education,” says Dhlamini.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to not be on the ground and make my voice heard, make the voices of other LGBTI people heard.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian