Safe Zones at Wits helps transgender groups to navigate life beyond Wits.
Safe Zones at Wits University and the trans-led non-governmental organisation, Be True 2 Me, have managed to bring diverse groups together through social support meetings for transgender staff and students.
There are online sessions every second Thursday of the month and in-person meetings every Friday at the Wits Disability Rights Unit Boardroom in Solomon Mahlangu.
Programme coordinator for Sexual Orientation and Gender Advocacy, Tish Lumos told Wits Vuvuzela that the group sessions are open to everyone and guarantee confidentiality. Lumos said practical resources on offer include a library and no-perishable food.
Group member Jenna Searle said, “I’ve been to the online meetings on Thursdays, but I just liked the idea of interacting with young students.”
While Wits alumni, Lethabo Msibi said, “There are transgender people around, but we can’t see each other, so this gives us a sense of community.”
For Jessica Bonthys, attending the session was about supporting her partner, Searle. “I wanted to get a different perspective and I didn’t know what to expect today but I found the information about transitioning very interesting and it’s nice to know that there are trained professionals taking care of your well-being,” they said.
The community also hosts an annual mentorship programme called “Train the Trainer Training,” which is a 12-hour training session for allies who want to advocate for and support members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The next session will be on Friday, May 12 at the Wits Disability Rights Unit Boardroom from 13:30-15:30.
FEATURED IMAGE: The Safe Zone Keychain with the shield that identifies a person as an ally once they have completed training. Photo Candice Wagener
ACTIVATE Wits held a series of events during the week with the aim of celebrating transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, while also commemorating those who lose their lives on a daily basis to transphobic violence.
Thato Pule is a firm activist for the rights of those in the LGBTI community.
“Our bodies are political … and we can use them to protect ourselves … our bodies are vulnerable and therefore are targets,” says Thato Pule a third year Actuarial Science student from the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Pule is transgender woman and she is proud of who she is. When Wits Vuvuzela spoke to her, she was confident and assertive. She wore a stylish multi-colour dress (yellow, white and brown) paired with a black coat. Her hair was tied up and her make-up was on fleek. She spoke with such a command that one could not help but pay attention.
When Pule is asked about her experiences as a young, black and gifted transgender woman, she responds “I have no say in what happens to my daily experience because it is at the hands of those who benefit from my subjugation.”
So many times, it has been said that the youth of today are lazy and have no mission. However for the likes of Pule, there is a greater mission for young people in this era.
Earlier this year, the #rhodesmustfall movement was started by UCT students. The movement was sparked by students demanding transformation at UCT, particularly the removal of the statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes.
Pule said #rhodesmustfall was a starting point for her own thinking and caused her to think about the inclusion on campus of “queer bodies”.
Pule was a member of the UCT SRC, the chairperson of transformation and social responsiveness, at the time. However, she later resigned from her position after controversial comments were made about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community UCT SRC deputy president Zizipho Pae.
“We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us” Pae wrote after gay marriage was legalised in all American states.
These comments led to Pule posting to Facebook a picture that had tongues wagging. It showed the half-naked bodies of Pule and women in solidarity with her, standing in the UCT SRC president’s office. It was captioned “She invaded our personal space as queer bodies and now we are invading hers.”
She also criticises UCT as a whole for their lack of interest when it comes to issues relating to the LGBTI community. “UCT operates on the assumption that someone is either male or female,” she explains. Pule places emphasison residences, because she feels as though there is no consideration for people of all sexual orientations.
She is an activist with the newly formed Black Resolutions Movement which focuses on what she calls “black queerness.” Pule believes that the fact that she is black changes the entire sphere of being transgender.
“Activism is not an option, it’s a way of life” Pule says.
Transgendered people have been in the news, with reality television star Caitlyn Jenner, formerly a man, revealing to the world her identity as a woman. She went through medical treatments to look like a woman before changing her name. While criticised by many, including some who claimed it was a publicity stunt, Jenner was also praised and received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award earlier this month.
Pule praises Jenner’s journey because she believes that it has helped to “introduce transgender people into mainstream homes.” However she still believes that is still much work to be done in Africa for people of all sexual orientations to be understood and accepted.
YOUNG, BLACK AND TRANSGENDER: UCT student Thato Pule stands up for the LGBTI community. Photo: Provided
OCCUPIED: Wits toilets to be transformed for the safety of the transgendered. Photo: Percy Matshoba
THE university is proposing “gender neutral” toilets in future to accommodate transgender students and staff.
According to the Wits anti-discrimination draft policy, all new buildings should have “gender neutral toilets, change-rooms and bathrooms”.
In addition, the draft policy states where applicable “all disabled toilets, change-rooms and bathrooms should be considered neutral spaces available for use by non-gender conforming staff and students with disabilities”.
Second-year bio-med student Alaine Marsden said gender neutral toilets are a necessity at Wits. “For gender variant individuals, we don’t feel safe going into bathrooms.”
Marsden, who is transgender, said the university needed to put the plan of introducing these bathrooms into action. “We don’t want spaces of contention, abuse and harassment. It will make us feel more at ease on campus.”
Marsden expressed fears of going into male or female bathrooms in the university. “I have to be careful,” said Marsden.
Diversity, ethics and social justice manager Pura Mgolombane told Wits Vuvuzela once the policy is approved it will then be put into the 2016 budget. “Some toilets’ signage will either be changed to a gender-neutral sign or new ones will be built, but it all depends on the approval of the policy,” he said.
First year BMus student Max Liebenberg said gender neutral toilets are the first step in fighting gender inequality. Liebenberg said for the convenience of transgendered individuals the university should make gender-neutral toilets available.
Foundation music student Shakeel Cullis said gender-neutral bathrooms and toilets are the norm in households. “I don’t see why it should be any different [at Wits],” said Cullis.
Heritage studies student Rita Potenza said men have the tendency to not keep their bathrooms clean and because of that, she would prefer to keep toilets separate.
“I wouldn’t want the unhygienic level [of male bathrooms] to spill over into the girls’ toilets,” said Potenza.
Francis Burger, MA Fine Arts, said if the university were to introduce neutral gender toilets she would prefer them.
“I prefer peeing standing up,” she said.
The University of Cape Town has introduced gender-neutral toilets on campus to accommodate transgender students and staff.
Gender-neutral facilities are common in many institutions in the United States of America. Other South African universities such as Rhodes University are also in the process of making these facilities available in line with anti-gender discrimination policies.
Today we’re taking a look at the #WitsShutdown protests which are over historical debt and unaffordable accommodation, which have seen several students suspended, physical clashes between protestors and security and disruptions to the academic programme for many. In this bonus episode of We Should Be Writing, we let students unpack their views on what has […]