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Gender is a 2017 buzz-word. It is a subject that is essential, but often misunderstood. In National Geographic’s series, The Gender Revolution, American activist, author, and comedian Sam Killermann, breaks gender down into three basic categories: gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Killerman defines gender identity as “how you see yourself”, gender expression as the “dif ferent ways we present gender through our actions, dress and demeanour”, and biological sex as the “physical characteristics that make up ou r body”. Mpho Motiang, counsellor at the Centre for Sexuality, Aids and Gender (CSA&G) at UP, echoed Killermann’s
definition of gender when he said that he “identif[ies] gender as how you feel and how you express yourself within your everyday interaction within the world and what the world gets to receive of that.”
Many believe that gender equals biological sex, therefore, if a person has XY chromosomes then their gender is male. However, while a person may have XY chromosomes, they may still feel that they identify better as a female. Motiang explains that these conservative ideologies surrounding gender exist because gender is a social construct: “There’s so many ways to express it [gender], yet we become so used to a binary system where it is man on one side and woman on another side. It is a lot more complicated than that.” Motiang describes gender as “fluid” since it cannot be broken down into two simple categories of male and female.
The biological make-up of many people correlates with their gender, although this is not the case with everyone, as seen with transgender people. National Geographic said in their documentary, The Gender Revolution, that testosterone levels during pregnancy could determine whether a person is transgender. In fact, above average levels of testosterone in the second and third trimesters of a pregnancy can cause a baby girl to believe she is a boy. Motiang defines and expands on what it means to be transgender. He says, “We usually look at transgender as just an umbrella term for an interchanging space of gender. It’s a transformational space of gender – so some people are transitioning physically, some people are trying to understand themselves emotionally.”
While transgender people may fit into a gender binary category, such as a transgender woman or transgender man, it is important to recognise that many fit into a non-binary category of gender. A person who is androgynous, which National Geographic defines as “gender identity or expression [which] shifts between masculine, feminine, or somewhere in-between”, fits into a non-binary category of gender. An “agender” or gender neutral person also fits into the non-binary category of gender.
There are still misconceptions surrounding gender and stigmas attached to gender roles. Kemelo Sehlapelo, a BA Humanities student at UP, said, “There are many myths about the gender non-binary community that need to be broken [such as] the myth that people belonging to this community are ‘confused’ or born with birth defects that make them that way. Non-binary simply means that they choose not to conform with the allocated binary gender that they were given at birth.” Motiang said that the biggest misconception surrounding gender is that “your gender determines your sexuality”. Motiang dismisses this misconception by saying
that too often people assume that “if somebody dresses in a bit of a masculine ‘tomboy’ style, now that the person is lesbian […] but it is just an expression of your clothing.” Such misconceptions and stigmas are further perpetuated by our society, especially through media. Motiang says that the media sometimes portrays gender nonconformity incorrectly, saying, “Right now there is still a high stigma because people don’t really understand it [gender]. There [are] organisations that try [to understand gender] and the public space, especiall y in media, [and they] make a bit of an ef fort but they don’t get it right every time.” The South African television show Generations is one particular example that Motiang uses to show how media may slightly misrepresent minority groups. He continues to say that “We have to be very careful about how we represent certain minorities in the media.”
Despite some exposure within South African media, gender ideals may seem somewhat Americanised. South Africa seems to be slow-moving in terms of gender exposure and policies. As Motiang says, “South African culture is actually a bit conservative still. We’ve got a lot of liberal law and our laws are good for creating safe spaces, but the people who live in those spaces are still very conservative, very heteronormative.” Although Motiang believes that South Africa has the potential to change, he feels that “change in policy implementation, education and media representation” is essential as these factors can either do a lot of good or a lot of harm.
According to Motiang, since South Africa is still considered conservative, it is essential that UP continues to bring the topic of gender into the light. Motiang feels that “consistency is key” and that “more media coverage and transparency around the situation” is needed with UP campaigns such as #SpeakOUTUP. Thiruna Naidoo, who also works at the CSA&G, agrees with Motiang, saying, “Basic education about gender and other gender identities outside the spectrum of male or female would assist in the transition into a campus environment that is a safe space for non-binary people to feel safe and be themselves.” Sehlapelo believes that “the best thing that students can do when meeting any non-binary person for the first time is ask which pronouns they prefer , instead of just assuming their gender. They can also read up on how non-binary/non-conforming individuals differ from intersex individuals, as they are often mixed up.”
Creating a safer campus space for all students is something that UP should continue to strive toward. Overall, Motiang said that what he would like to see from UP this year is “a little bit more visibility, a little bit more transparency” and that he would “like the campus to get into that spirit of being safe an d vulnerable around each other.”
Image: Fezekile Msimang