Looking beyond the gender boundary

Celebrating Gender Diversity panel
Celebrating Gender Diversity panel

By Siphokazi Mathe, Media Management student


By hosting a series of open discussions and conversational panels, the aim of this year’s Gender Week has been to facilitate the process of healing and to educate the University community about gender, societal and institutional culture.

A panel discussion held on 7 August titled “Celebrating Gender Diversity”, aimed to explore “identities that disrupt the normal; the other” as expressed by Keri Perumal, the panel discussion’s facilitator for the evening. Perumal is from Nkoli-Fassie, an organisation that deals with various issues including sexual assault on campus.

The panel discussion began with a presentation by Lane Tao entitled “On social support, love, labelled and (sometimes) disordered”. Having started studying at Rhodes University in 2015, Tao’s presentation recounted their journey of gender exploration at Rhodes University – through a series of selfies, a recount of relationships, and sex work as a valid occupation. Tao debunked the ties between gender, affirmation, confidence and self-image. Tao grew up in a conservative community and started to experience bullying due to their expressions of femininity. In 2015, they started cross-dressing in public and wearing makeup – it was during this time that Tao began to question gendered labels. Lao determined that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, what matters how others see you – which often presents a problem for people existing beyond the bounds of the gender binary.

“I am not a performance; I do not exist in this space and body for you,” said the second panelist Phumelele Nkomozake, who provoked introspective thoughts of our ideas about gender and how we see others. Nkomozake drew on the words of Dr Lindsay Kelland and the notion of Sawubona (“I see you”), emphasising that social systems and socialisation influence the way in which we see others. “What we see biologically or phenotypically does not always translate to who a person is, thus we need to question and debunk our notions of gender and the performance of gender,” she said.

Nkomozake went on to recount her significant experiences of gender and margilisation due to gender as a transgender woman living within a traditionally African and often homophobic household – drawing parallels between gender, gender roles and ideas of womenhood. She further explained that the performance of gender for some is a means of survival within heteronormative spaces.

Nkomozake stated that “in order for me to exist, the binary needs to exist”, revealing the intricacies of gender, identity and affirmation. While the binary of gender can present challenges for people existing beyond its linearity, it can also provide some form of affirmation and validity.

Nkomozake asked, “If the body is a site of intellect, how do we then adapt feminism to include and promote the identities of all people?”

Generating thought about how we as individuals see each other, Tao and Nkomozake sparked a dialogue about the reimagination of a broadened scope of gender and identity.

The Silent Protest Programme, which has been running annually at Rhodes University for the last nine years, is organised by the Equity and Institutional Culture Office and GenACT.