Universities: a mirror of their communities

Research on the perceptions and experiences of Lesbian; Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) students and how they are perceived at the University of Venda (Univen) reflects that it this just a mirror of what is happening in the entire rural community of the Vhembe district (the former Venda homeland).

To change this, we needed to work with the entire community — not just the university community, to ensure that we actually talk to each other and learn together, we opted to work in a multi-cultural, inter-generational dialogue and group discussions – traditional methods tends to discourage mixing thereby perpetuating ‘othering’ and exclusionist approaches.

This led to the hosting, in 2017, of the Destabilise Heteronormativity seminar, a multi-stakeholder and multi-institution seminar on deconstructing taboo, at Univen.

The seminar was a collaborative effort between Univen, the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). The main purpose of the symposium was to have a dialogue with students, academics and influential community members such as elders, traditional healers, church leaders, chiefs and politicians. Mixing of diverse individuals was based on the fact that the students’ reasons for discriminating and stigmatizing LGBTI individuals were based on widespread and current cultural practices and religious beliefs. The symposium was initiated by broad questions on how participants view LGBTI individuals based on whatever they believe in.

Some of the attitudes expressed by participants are reflected below:

“Ndi madimoni, o dzulwa, muthu wa vhukuma anga si ite hezwi (That demon, the person is possessed, a real person cannot do that” (Church leader)

The long-standing claim of insanity was evoked by some in relation to same-sex marriage, wherein a participant said: “Vhafumakadzii vha tshi khou malana ri vha dzhia vha songo fhelela (When women marry each other we consider them not mentally sound) (Politician)

“Mutukana a amala munwe mutukana, zwo vha zwi matula.” (Community elder)

“This is taboo. So we shall know how to end this.” (Chief).

Understanding that Universities, particularly those in rural areas are anchor institutions, we knew that we had to play a unifying, educative role through dialogue. The role of higher education in demystifying these attitudes, providing correct information and shifting the stereotypes is important. Information and education can impact change and shift ideas that certain gender identities and sexual orientation preferences are taboo. Certainly the community’s perspectives need to change, not the people themselves.

One participant confirmed “…Kale zwo vha zwi hone, ipfi la matanyla li bva ngafhi (Homosexuality was there before in our culture, that is why there is the term for same sex) (Community Elder).

The confirmed existence of people with diverse sexual orientations and diverse gender identities is affirming and calls for further research into the histories of the communities that have been erased by colonialism and Christian values.

These responses sparked a heated debate, which assisted the facilitators to identify the points for dialogue in small groups, based on the basis of their beliefs and practices. The outcome of the dialogues was diverse; the pastors were debating and fighting among each other based on the Bible verses. Facilitators confirmed what they had known about the need to continue the multi-stakeholder dialogue as a platform for multi-cultural inter generational learning.

Among traditional healers and traditional knowledge holders, there was a positive breakthrough as they realised that the notion of saying that being an LGBTI individual is un-African is simply not true. They ended up mentioning examples of LGBTI individuals they know, the non-discriminatory terms used and how those people are respected in the community.

However, they also mentioned that in the olden days, elderly women who were traditional birth attendants would deal with the child without even the mother knowing.

To wrap up the dialogue, there was a presentation by a transgender individual, an opportunity for community participants really understand LGBTI individuals; there were some young women among the participants who were saying that they have never seen a same-sex couple. The appreciation that came from the traditional healers who felt that it was a great learning experience.

Professor VO Netshandama and colleagues, some of whom are linguists, collaborated with the ‘Findnewwords’ team in creating Tshivenda/ Xitsonga words which are non-discriminatory for LGBTI individuals.

As part of further deconstructing matula, Professor AH Mavhandu-Mudzusi is leading a multinational collaborative study on the attitudes of heterosexual students towards same-sex marriage and parenting. She also participated in students’ dialogues held at Unisa led by the Gays and Lesbians of South Africa organisation, a recognized LGBTI structure, and writing the Unisa College of Human Sciences statement on homophobia and transphobia. 

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