Trans-shaming by public figures ‘worsens the prejudice’

Months after auditioning on the reality show Idols South Africa, Ashern Madlopha sat down with her sister and a close friend in her home in Piet Retief to watch the episode on which her shot at fame was to appear. What she saw left her in tears.

Flighted on July 30, in this episode saw the show’s judges — Kelly Khumalo, Somizi Mhlongo, Randall Abrahams and Unathi Msengana — debate whether “it” — their word for Madlopha — was a girl or a boy. Presenter ProVerb’s quip that “Ashern had let both the ladies and the guys down” added insult to nationally televised injury.

“When I saw it on TV, I was so hurt — hurt in my heart,” says the 23-year-old. “On the day of the audition, I didn’t know that that happened. That they said all that stuff. I didn’t know. I was crying when I saw that. Like seriously, how can they do that? This thing of calling a human being ‘it’. It …”

In response to this, the Injabulo Anti-Bullying Project launched an online campaign to have the show’s producers apologise for what queer and trans rights activists regard as trans-shaming.

“The actions of the judges perpetuate the prejudice, hostility, humiliation and hatred trans people experience on daily basis,” the petition read, saying the judges had also violated Madlopha’s constitutional rights.

Transphobia by media personalities was in the spotlight again last week after radio presenter Criselda Dudumashe, speaking at an event held at the University of Venda, made comments that queer and trans rights activists called “very inappropriate” and “highly irresponsible”.

The event, put together by the Higher Education and Training HIV/Aids Programme, took the form of a dialogue aimed at reducing gender-based violence.

Tshilidzi Mudau, a student at the university, attended the event.

“She [Dudumashe] said a couple of things that were very inappropriate,” says Mudau. “She spoke of ‘she-males’ and also said: ‘If you have a penis between your legs, you are still a man.’ To me that did not sit well. I understand that we all have our individual views on some things, but in a place like that, you keep your individual views and beliefs to yourself. I mean, calling people she-males … eish.”

Thalukanyo Raedane, a former student who also attended, adds: “It was really, really off. Her being an ambassador for the anti-gender-based violence movement is questionable. To make statements like that in such a rural and highly patriarchal university is highly irresponsible. We deal with a lot of hate crimes issues here.”

Raedane has laid a complaint against Dudumashe with the Commission for Gender Equality. The commission’s Kerry Oosthuizen confirmed receipt of the complaint.

Dudumashe’s statements were made on the same day the high court found that comments made by yet another media personality, Jon Qwelane, in a 2009 column in the Sunday Sun, were hate speech.

The proceedings were brought against Qwelane by the South African Human Rights Commission after he published an unapologetically homophobic opinion piece in the newspaper.

In the column, Qwelane expressed “my serious reservations” about gay people’s lifestyle and sexual preferences, saying that “wrong is 
wrong!” He also expressed his admiration for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s “unflinching and unapologetic stance over homosexuals”.

According to the Human Rights Commission’s counsel, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, the commission received an “unprecedented” 350 complaints about the column.

In handing down judgment, Judge Dimpheletse Moshidi said the column was “hurtful, harmful and incites propaganda hate towards the LGBT community”.

He ordered Qwelane to have a written apology to the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community printed in a national newspaper within 30 days and to pay all costs of the court proceedings.

Melanie Judge, of the University of Cape Town’s law faculty, says: “In a country where so many political leaders are increasingly displaying such profound racist, misogynist and homophobic statements, this judgement is absolutely critical.”

The gender equality commission’s Oosthuizen adds that the precedent set by the judgment would be a “clear deterrent”, showing that hate speech will not be tolerated in South Africa.

Clinical psychologist Itumeleng Mamabolo says prejudiced comments made by those in the public eye can have far-reaching consequences.

“The media plays a huge role in many people’s lives. You see this, for example, when a public figure buys something and this then starts a trend … What they say can have quite an impact,” says Mamabolo.

“We underestimate the trauma that can come with words, because they are not tangible. Because the spoken word cannot be seen or touched, the trauma caused by them can be more difficult to process. And this can have long-lasting and serious psychological effects.

“The impact of a ‘violence of the tongue’ … might not be immediate but, on a subconscious level, it can affect the psyche.”

Mamabolo says media personalities have a greater responsibility than others because their disparaging comments could influence how fans behave towards certain groups.

“It almost makes it okay for somebody to violate another in a verbal or even physical sense,” he says.

Following her remarks, Dudumashe was removed from her position as ambassador for the Higher Education and Training HIV/Aids Programme, which said it was “highly disappointed” and “condemns these utterances”.

An apology was also issued by M-Net in an article published by the Daily Sun about the Idols episode in question. M-Net’s Nondumiso Mabece said: “Contestants are treated equally and judged on their singing, irrespective of sexual orientation. The dialogue [between the judges as to whether Madlopha was a male or female] was an effort to understand the contestant’s identity. We apologise for any offence.”

“I accept that apology in my heart,” says Madlopha in response, “but I am still confused. I just don’t know …”

Madlopha at least has the support of her Piet Retief community: “You know, after that episode, a lot of people called me — even people I don’t know — and said: ‘You’re a good girl, don’t let the negative things they said get to you.’

“At this point I don’t care what they say. I am who I am. I’m not a loser. I’m a positive person. I don’t hold grudges. But, you know, it’s still hurting. I feel like … It’s like our role models have turned their backs on us.”

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

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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