‘It’s time for a (trans)formation that liberates trans, gender-diverse, and all people,’ say gender experts at UP’s Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender

Posted on August 27, 2020

When JK Rowling suggested that transgender (hereafter trans1) women in bathrooms could pose a threat to cisgender (hereafter cis) women and that “many health professionals are concerned that young people struggling with their mental health are being shunted towards hormones and surgery when this may not be in their best interests” – which she called “a new kind of conversion therapy” – she not only alienated many of her fans, she spoke to the fears, anxieties and prejudices of many cis people.

These tropes of latent violence, toxic identity confusion and sinister agendas are a form of resistance to the idea that in fact sex and gender are complex phenomena, and gender diversity is more common than we imagine. And since conversion therapy for gay people – psychological interventions to corral them into heterosexuality – has been discredited, Rowling’s linguistic strategy has been to position trans people as victims of a psychologically harmful agenda against their wishes.

This is not the case for most trans people, who experience social and medical transitioning (the steps taken to present in the world as the gender you identify with) as liberating and often life-saving. It is easy to say that young people do not know what they really want, but not only do many people know from a young age that they are different, clinics and services for young people are also at pains to ensure that no decision is taken lightly. The mental health challenges Rowling invokes are usually linked to transphobia and gender-rigid societies, both of which cause great distress to young, and older, trans people – or indeed anyone who lives their lives in ways that challenge gender binaries: people who identify as non-binary, gender queer, gender non-conforming or agender.

It is said that power abhors a vacuum; in a time when patriarchal and heteronormative power is waning (albeit slowly), trans people and those who push the boundaries of gender (and sexual) binaries and gender (and sexual) diversities are asserting a new form of power, the power of self-definition, the power of gender (and sexual) liberation. This, we argue, is being met with resistance, and the battle lines are being drawn.2

This is as true of the University of Pretoria (UP) as anywhere. When a young student came to the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) three years ago to say he was a trans man and wanted support from us, little did we know where this journey would take us. He was concerned that the ways and habits of UP, its bureaucratic and gendered architecture, were inhibitory to the dignity and rights of trans and gender-diverse people like him. UP was, and is not, alone in this – most institutions and societies work in this way. And even though South Africa has a progressive Constitution and affords us the right to change our names and sex descriptors in our identity documents, the lives of trans people in the country then and today are still precarious.

Trans people face higher levels of mental health risk because of transphobia; trans people are not only humiliated on a daily basis, they are also attacked and murdered. Many cannot afford gender-affirming hormones nor can they have gender-affirming surgeries due to decades-long waiting lists in the two major public hospitals that conduct these surgeries. The challenges and humiliations of trans students are well documented in research conducted by the Trans University Forum: name and gender preferences are not recognised; students experience residence placement battles as well as gender policing across multiple domains; there are inadequate student health services and a lack of dignified bathroom spaces. It is easy to be dismissive of the relatively small number of trans and gender-diverse people who report bias, inconvenience and harm at our institutions, but their experiences are a barometer of genuine inclusivity and they allow us to offer a counter narrative to simple majoritarianism.

Why shouldn’t all people – of whatever persuasion or presentation – feel safe and celebrated “at home”, even in the broad family of UP? Is this not an opportunity to realise a new transformation – a (trans) formation?

In an essay titled ‘Geopolitics of sensing and knowing: On (de)coloniality, border thinking, and epistemic disobedience’, Walter Mignolo says that when you belong to the category of the “other”, this is not a fact, it is a discursive fiction. Whoever invented “the other”, invented “the same”. And the inventors of “the other” have the institutional power to impose this on the collective imaginary. How do we resist this? Mignolo suggests that “once you realise that your inferiority is a fiction created to dominate you, and you do not want to either assimilate or accept in resignation the bad luck of having been born equal to all human beings, but having lost your equality shortly after being born, because of the place you were born, then you delink. Delinking means that you do not accept the options that are available to you”.

Trans people, and especially trans people at UP and other universities, are not accepting the options available to them. They are calling for an overhaul of who and what we are and how we operate, and a re-examination of how we think about gender in its entirety. They are calling for respect for their right to self-determination around gender – why should bureaucrats determine how one chooses to live a life of dignity? This is a (trans) formation that liberates trans and gender-diverse people, but, frankly, all of us who live in a world that shapes and controls us according to how we look, how we identify and what we do. To this end, we are working on a guideline called the Trans Protocol to shape our institutional response to gender diversity. Our vision is that it makes us a stronger, better, more interesting and more dignified place.  

Pierre Brouard is a clinical psychologist and Deputy Director of the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) at the University of Pretoria. Researcher and anthropologist Vuyisa Mamanzi is a Project Manager at the CSA&G.


1 “Transgender” can be used as an umbrella term for gender-diverse people. We use “trans” here to refer to people whose gender identity differs from their assumed gender identity based on the sex assigned at birth, and who wish to engage in a social and sometimes medical transition to align their appearance with their gender identity, leading to a change in legal sex in South African identity documents. A trans man who was assigned female at birth, will now use the pronouns “he”, “him” and “his”, and live his life as a man; a trans woman who was assigned male at birth will use the pronouns “she”, “her” and “hers”, and live her life as a woman. People who are “cisgender” have a gender identity that is congruent with the sex (and presumed gender identity) assigned at birth.

2 We note that cis and heterosexual women and men who challenge patriarchy could also be vilified and targeted by the patriarchal machinery that seeks to retain power for heterosexual, cis men.


- Author Pierre Brouard and Vuyisa Mamanzi

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