/ 7 September 2017

Searching for new queer terms

“Having to use English removes us from our cultures. It others us.”
“Having to use English removes us from our cultures. It others us.”

Matula (taboo). Matudzi (bad omen). If you are a queer person in Venda, this is what you are called.

“You are seen as the bringer of bad luck,” says Unisa’s Professor Azwihangwisi Mavhandu-Mudzusi. “Whatever bad things are happening in the community — lack of rain, crime, ritual murders — is because of you or your behaviour. You’d get blamed for anything bad. So these are very packed terms.”

In an attempt to debunk this belief — and to try to find terms that are less steeped in prejudice — Mavhandu-Mudzusi is working alongside the University of Venda’s Professor Vhonani Olive Netshandama on the Deconstructing Matula project.

As part of the initiative, a report was published in August in which they called for “culturally congruent” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) advocacy programmes in rural areas.

“We need a programme that will focus on culture and, if we are addressing anything, will not offend anyone. We need to use language that is not offensive,” says Mavhandu-Mudzusi.

The report was “a starting point of a very long, inclusive dialogue questioning matula as a troubling concept”.

The lack of inoffensive terms for those who identify as LGBTI is not limited to Tshivenda. The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Thabo Msibi says: “The fundamental problem is that local languages have very negative terms [for LGBTI people]. These not only invoke a sense of rage and anger in people who identify as queer, but homophobes also use it is an argument, saying, ‘we’ll continue using it because there are no positive terms’.”

The problem, says Msibi, is compounded by the fact that, for many — particularly in rural areas — the term LGBTI is “a foreign concept”.

“People generally don’t know what LGBTI is. The word ‘gay’ has only recently become understood within rural settings.”

The Deconstructing Matula report found that “when we introduced the topic and related concepts, it was not uncommon for the people to not know what LGBTI stands for. They would ask, ‘what is LGBTI?’”

Khanyi Mkhwanazi is a writer and activist who identifies as queer. “I came out to my parents as a lesbian and I’m not sure how to fix that,” she laughs wryly. “I’m not sure how to explain to them what queer is. Not because of language, but because of culture. Culturally, people are still trying to grasp ‘man and man’ or ‘woman and woman’. It is still seen as a new thing. So I really don’t know how to describe being queer to my parents without feeling perverse in their eyes.”

For Mkhwanazi, who chose not to use her real name, the lack of acceptable terms with which to describe her identity in her mother tongue, isiXhosa, and the resultant need to employ English is a frustration.

“Having to use English removes us from our cultures. It others us.”

Writer and social commentator Fumbatha May says that, because isiXhosa is a functional language, “the politically correct versions of LGBTI terms are really long-winded and descriptive and don’t really lend themselves to colloquial application”.

“For instance, intersex people are normally referred to as ‘italasi’, which is a derogatory term meaning ‘hermaphrodite’. Trans people would be ‘abantu abazelwe besisini simbi kuneso bakhula beziva besiso (people born with a sex that differs from the gender they perceive themselves to be’).”

May adds that he prefers the Xhosa terms ‘amakhanukanodwa’ (they who desire only themselves or each other) and ‘oodlezinye’, which he says, “is a bit crude, meaning literally ‘they who eat’ — read, fuck — ‘others like them’ ”.

“These are brand new words that might not be in wide usage as I’ve only heard them used once or twice in more tongue-in-cheek references made in safe spaces by both queer and non-queer persons,” he says.

Added to Mkhwanazi’s frustration is what she refers to as “activist speak”.

“I often reject a lot of that language. In feminist spaces, for example, you’d have people speaking of ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘patriarchy’ but when you are going to a rural woman who might not be that educated and trying to make her understand these things, you’re not going to get her with the word ‘patriarchy’. And it’s the same within LGBTQ spaces. We’re still in a very academic phase of the struggle. But many of us don’t live in an academic space.”

Ziggy Nkosi, a transgender man, says: “When I came out to my parents I had to explain to them in English because I didn’t have the words. When I eventually explained to them, they were like, ‘so umfana osemzimbeni wentombazana? (so you’re a boy trapped in female’s body?)’ I was like, ‘that’s what I’m saying’,” he laughs.

While conducting research for a University of the Witwatersrand initiative, Destabilising Heteronormativity, Nkosi realised the need for the awareness-raising workshops he now conducts in isiZulu.

“When we were doing work with organisations in rural areas around HIV and reproductive rights, I found that there was still a lot of thinking that homosexuality is unAfrican. And many of the people who thought this way used the fact that the language used is English, so Western,” he says.

Recalling his first workshop, held in Vosloorus, Nkosi says: “We had gogos and mothers there, so I was basically talking to these older people who are not academic and dealing with issues on the ground, on a real-life basis every day.

“I was doing that talk and really getting my activist on,” he laughs, “but it was only at the end of the talk, when I explained to them what being transgender really is, without all the terms we normally use, did they say, ‘oh that makes sense now. My daughter is like that. She’s not a lesbian, but a man’.”

Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) Finn Reygan echoes this sentiment.

“When it comes to engaging governments or stakeholders at community level, one of the first entry points is language … the use of terminology is important.”

Reygan believes that the use of broader terms assists in fostering greater understanding. If someone says “people who are perceived as different because of their gender” instead of “LGBTI”, it facilitates discussion about how people perceive gender, he says.

“And you find people then starting to talk about so-and-so in their community, who was maybe assigned male at birth, but identifies as a woman.

“The outcome of those discussions becomes very different. The argument that homosexuality or being queer is unAfrican is then not as foregrounded because people are thinking of sexual orientation and gender diversity within their own communities,” he says.

Msibi says some queer South Africans have started reclaiming traditionally offensive words.

“There is a movement in which queer people are reclaiming and reappropriating words such as istabane, in the same way the word ‘queer’ is being reappropriated. But I’m not for that, because the general public is not clear that this is reappropriation. If that is going to be done, it has to be politically driven.”

Msibi says there had to be a serious process in South Africa to look at language.

The HSRC will, in the next few months, discuss the issue through a series of workshops. As part of the Deconstructing Matula project, a seminar will also be held at the University of Venda in November.

“We will meet traditional leaders, community elders and religious leaders,” says Mavhandu-Mudzusi.

Mkhwanazi adds: “Look, when we start breaking these things down, it is not going to end homo-phobia, but it will, at least, start creating a new narrative.”

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

The Other Foundation