/ 14 March 2017

​Queer students battle for inclusion

Living apart: Nigel Patel
Living apart: Nigel Patel

The youth grabbed Dewaldt Visser by the collar, spat in his face and said: “Fok off uit hierdie huis uit. Jy behoort nie hier nie. [Fuck off out of this house. You don’t belong here.]”

“He was one of the students living in the same residence as me; one of those guys who wear their khakis with an old South African flag on it. He didn’t like me because I am gay,” says Visser, who did not wish to use his real name.

Recalling his two years of living in an all-male residence at North-West University’s Potchefstroom campus, Visser says: “It’s extremely heteronormative, so if you’re seen as ‘other’ it is not a welcoming place.”

Financial constraints meant Visser had to continue living in the residence.

“At the time I was dependent on my parents, and they wanted me to stay in that residence. They are very conservative and share the same worldview as those people in that residence.

“But as soon as I could move out, I did. My parents were distraught when they heard, though. They said I’d let the Afrikaner culture down,” says Visser. “We still don’t speak. But they don’t understand. It was rough. There were a lot of difficulties living there.”

Themba Sithole is a final-year student at the University of Pretoria.

“Residence culture is very Afrikaans, so integrating people of different race groups and sexual identities is very difficult,” says Sithole, who chose not have his real name used.

After initially living in one of the university’s all-male residences, Sithole says: “At first, people in my residence didn’t know about my sexuality. But as time went on and they started realising I was gay, a lot of them were not willing to be around me. It became a problem, so I started withdrawing from res activities.”

Sithole adds that moving into a private residence was “much better; I feel more accepted because there is not such a strongly entrenched, highly masculine res culture”.

The overly masculine culture in the university’s all-male residences is something Nicholas Lawrence is more than familiar with.

Lawrence, former chairperson of the University of Pretoria’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) organisation, Up and Out, says its residences are generally not accepting of queer people.

“There was an incident last year where a young transgender man, who was transitioning at the time, was cornered and beaten up. It hurt him really badly. He was so traumatised by the experience that he couldn’t write his exams that year. It was just too much for him.”

Lawrence was part of a student-led initiative to have the university formulate an anti-homophobia policy. He was disappointed when the proposed policy was instead turned into a broader anti-discrimination policy.

“I’m going to be brutally honest with you. This university is not the space for discussion around these issues. This conversation I am having with you could possibly have people come down on me, but I’m just being honest,” says Lawrence.

Geoffrey Ogwaro is part of the committee tasked with drafting the anti-discrimination policy. He is a human rights advocate who specialises in LGBTI rights at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights’ Faculty of Law.

“After discussion by the committee, it was decided to broaden the scope of the policy. It is still in the process of being drafted, but there will be sections within it that speak to homophobia and transphobia,” says Ogwaro.

The committee hopes to have the final policy in place by the beginning of the 2018 academic year.

At the University of the Free State (UFS), a group of queer rights activists are working equally hard at “trying to find solutions for dealing with queer visibility on campus”.

At a Saturday morning meeting on campus, they formulated the Words With Action Gender Campaign.

Seoketsi Mooketsi, a third-year student and trans rights activist, says: “In addition to the need for gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms, there is also a need for adequate healthcare and counselling for queer and trans people. The campus housing policy is also an issue as it sees students only as male or female, which does a disservice to trans students.”

Although he hails from the Free State, Boitumelo Sediti choose to study at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

“I come from the Free State, but I would never have applied to UFS. I have heard some horror stories about that university. I chose UCT because I believed there would be better opportunities to engage with issues of sexuality and identity.”

But Sediti still found his first year of living in an all-male residence difficult. “Finding myself having to assimilate to a certain level of masculinity was particularly hard,” he says, adding that the experience has spurred him on to take up a leadership position at the residence.

“I got to see how queer first-year students were going through the same thing I went through. So I wanted to try and provide them with a refuge of sorts and also advocate for the rights of minorities,” says Sediti, who is now one of four subwardens at his residence.

Lungile Lallie is a second-year student living in the university’s Leo Marquard Hall residence.

Lallie, who has been living in the residence for the past two years, says: “At formal res meetings, people are no longer allowed to use gender-specific pronouns. We refer to ourselves as Maquardians instead. This might seem like a small thing to some, but it makes a huge, huge difference to people who find themselves occupying spaces where their identities are erased at all times.”

It was protests at the Leo Marquard Hall residence that gave birth to the #PatriarchyMustFall movement.

Nigel Patel, a queer rights activist, explains: “During the [September 2015] Leo Marquard interrogations [when the public questions students running for leadership positions], a black woman student asked what the student leaders were going to do about the patriarchy in the residence.

“Her microphone was cut as the question was asked and some members of the house started to chant the Marquard chant to silence her and get her off the stage.

“The next day, many UCT students went to the residence to hold the old leadership and incoming leadership to account. The space ended up becoming one where women and queer students shared their stories about sexual assault and discrimination within the residence space, specifically those gendered for men.”

Expanding on what these challenges are, Patel says: “The first problem, before you even set foot in the residence, is the system of gendered residences. For a long time, these have been sex-based placements. So if you were biologically female you would be placed in a residence for women and if you were biologically male you would be placed in a residence for men.”

#PatriarchyMustFall activists’ ongoing talks with those responsible for student housing have yielded some positive results, such as banning the singing of problematic songs, according to Patel.

“The men’s residences, for example, used to sing this song during initiation: ‘There is the girl in green/ What a sex machine/ There is the girl in red/ Let’s fuck her till she’s dead.’ ”

A 2016 report by Josephine Cornell, Kopano Ratele and Shose Kessi looks into the challenges queer people face at higher learning institutions. Titled Race, Gender and Sexuality in Student Experiences of Violence and Resistances on a University Campus, the report says: “Globally, within dominant educational discourses, ideal students are still typically represented as white, middle-class, male, cisgender and heterosexual. Furthermore, students who occupy these categories tend to hold symbolic power within these institutions.

“As a result, those who fall outside these categories, such as black, female, working-class and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex [LGBTQI] students question their belonging and experience a sense of alienation and exclusion.”

The report stated that students surveyed described instances of symbolic exclusion: “Particularly for transgender students, a form of symbolic violence or power they encountered daily was the paucity of gender-neutral bathrooms.”

One participant pointed out: “A fundamental biological function becomes complicated and painful. These students are required to put great effort and thought into the simple act of urinating, often experiencing great trauma.

“These experiences echo findings of other research, which indicates that transgender men, women and gender-nonconforming people are frequently ridiculed, insulted, physically attacked and sometimes arrested when they use public bathrooms. Consequently, they are often forced to plan visits to the bathroom carefully.”

Birgit Schreiber is senior director of student affairs at Stellenbosch University.

“At Stellenbosch University, gender-neutral bathrooms are now an addition for all the bathrooms and toilets where the opportunity offers itself. When bathrooms are revamped or remodelled, especially in the residences, student hubs, clusters and student communities, we offer a range of choices so that gender neutrality is supported and gender binaries are challenged.”

The university’s Jaco Brink was principal researcher for a 2014 report titled National Student Sexual Health, HIV Knowledge, Attitude and Behaviour Survey: Focusing on Student Men Who Have Sex with Men at 14 Higher Education Institutions in South Africa.

The report says students’ perceptions suggest there “may be room for improvement” in how university management responds to LGBTQI issues.

“Although both men who have sex with men (MSM) and non-MSM participants expressed moderate confidence (about 50%) that individual cases of discrimination would be well investigated by the HEI [higher education institution], many remained uncertain about the more general management of issues affecting LGBTQI students.”

Schreiber said the university’s student representative council motivated for an additional category when students enter details about themselves. As of 2017, students and staff can chose to identify themselves in gender-neutral ways by choosing Mx as a gender category in the administrative system.

“This is not only very important for assessment situations, but also in general in terms of creating awareness for newly arriving students that Stellenbosch University is supporting the range of expressions around gender,” says Schreiber.

The university is considering offering support to transgender students who are transitioning.

“We are aware of how these conversations not only benefit those students who think about it, but also open up conversations for others who need to explore narrow gender conceptualisations.”

In a February 2015 interview with the Daily Vox, Wits University student Mongezi Mkhondo, a transgender woman, spoke of the challenges she faced living in an all-male residence.

“I live in a male res and it’s really hard. I don’t usually get dressed as a woman while at res because I don’t really want to attract any attention. I don’t want people to get confused and ask why a girl is living at a male res, so I stay away from that as much as possible. I don’t want to confuse or trigger reactions from people. I don’t want them to do something to me next time.”

Tish White is programme co-ordinator of the Wits Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Advocacy programmes. White describes two core programmes, Safe Zones@Wits and Wits Pride, initiated in 2008 and 2011 respectively.

“Each furthers the specific objectives of creating and growing supportive networks for LGBTIAQ+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, queer and other] folk and sharing information, resources and details of safe community spaces.”

The programmes provide platforms for those in the university community to share their experiences, research and initiatives, says White.

The university works closely with organisations such as Activate Wits to ensure its programmes provide tangible support, says White. “For example, we now have 33 gender-neutral toilet facilities across our campuses.”

Schreiber adds: “Some of what we are struggling with, much like all HEIs, is that we are embedded into a violent, patriarchal and sexist society and we only have a short window of opportunity to challenge the thinking of our students.

“The implicit and explicit messages around gender, violence and power within our schools, families, churches and politics are entrenched and it requires a collective effort to challenge and shift these. In my experience, the universities, certainly Stellenbosch University, is keenly invested in challenging the culturally entrenched notions on gender and women.”

Not so, says Visser. “When I was living in that residence, there was nowhere on campus I could go for help, for support.”

Johan van Zyl, North-West University’s communications officer, says: “Apart from our human rights committee, structures within the respective residences as well as the office of the dean of students can also be used to report any violation of human rights, from where it is escalated to the next level. Various student societies exist on our campuses, assisting the university in promoting and protecting the rights of all individuals.”

Visser counters: “They might be trying to promote human rights but there is still nowhere you feel really safe to go as a queer person.

“Going through all of that has ultimately made me stronger. But there is this level of angst and insecurity I still have because of all of it. That kind of thing … it’s not something you come through unscathed.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.

The Other Foundation