Model policy gives hope to ‘othered and alone’ gender-diverse, trans students seeking safe spaces at varsity

Model policy gives hope to ‘othered and alone’ gender-diverse, trans students seeking safe spaces at varsity

We spoke to some members of the community about their experiences at universities and unpacked how a gender diversity policy might help with some of the challenges they face.

‘We have to fight, we have to advocate, we have to lobby, we have to claw our way through the higher education system,” Khanyisile Phillips, education advocacy coordinator for NGO Gender Dynamix (GDX), told Daily Maverick.

Phillips is a trans woman who advocates for the rights of trans and gender-diverse people in education for GDX, an organisation committed to “the development of the trans and gender-diverse movement(s) in South Africa and across Africa”.

She has been a crucial part of developing the Model Policy Framework for Inclusion of Trans and Gender Diverse Students Within Higher Education in South Africa, which aims to codify policies that will protect trans and gender-diverse students. It is the kind of document Phillips wishes she had had at her disposal during her time at an institution of higher learning.

“I think for me personally, having navigated higher education, it was always a contested space where you [had] to prove yourself with documentation before you [were] even considered to be respected,” she said.

“I wish that in my time… there was recognition of my gender identity on the basis of self-determination and self-declaration. And I could just be me.”

Her personal higher education journey was marred by experiences of not being safe and, in some cases, even physical and sexual assault because of her gender identity. The GDX human rights report found that, in South Africa, trans and gender-diverse people experience higher levels of physical and sexual violence than their cisgender counterparts. This means that the challenges and traumas facing trans students are a microcosm of broader societal and institutional violence.

Phillips said these traumas lead to higher dropout rates, a “heightened vulnerability” in these spaces and “unprecedented amounts” of depression and even suicide among community members. She hopes GDX’s model policy framework can be a part of mitigating these traumatic experiences.

It was vital that Phillips helped to develop such a framework, as she often found that discrimination policies in tertiary education were not specific enough about what should happen when a student is violated on the basis of gender identity. She added that this framework, the first of its kind in South Africa, is constitutionally supported by laws such as the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act 49 of 2003.

The contents of the framework provide breadth and depth in their scope and include specific policy that addresses, among other things, legal gender recognition, inclusivity within student housing, sporting codes, deadnaming, misgendering, gendered bathrooms and physical or sexual assault.

Existing policies

Phillips said a notable trans-specific policy that existed before the GDX framework is the University of Pretoria’s trans protocol. This is a “guideline to respond to the needs of trans, intersex, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary staff and students” that the university adopted in 2021.

Wits University’s Anti-Discrimination Policy clearly expresses that discrimination on the basis of gender is not permitted. Tish White, the project coordinator of the Wits Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Advocacy Programme, listed the services the university makes available to its trans and gender-diverse students. These include more than 50 gender-neutral toilet facilities across campuses, a dedicated weekly support group, the option to add a gender-neutral title to your access card and a free clothing and binder bank dedicated to their trans students experiencing dysphoria.

This teacher went on to say that her course would not address any trans-specific issues and would rather deal with ‘experiences of real women’.

For Elana Ryklief, a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University and the only trans student in her doctoral cohort, these kinds of policies didn’t exist when she started her higher education journey in 2014. Stellenbosch University now has its Policy on Unfair Discrimination and Harassment, which “outlines the mechanisms used by the university to address all forms of harassment and discrimination levelled against LGBTQIA+ and transgender persons”.

Ryklief noted that it is incredibly important that tertiary institutions have policies that speak to gender diversity because “they are supposed to be producing knowledge and literature that will create a bigger difference in society later on sociopolitically [and] culturally”.

Ryklief has also faced challenges throughout university because of her gender identity, including a harrowing classroom experience in her honours year with a teacher who aligned with “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” (TERF).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Part of child protection is allowing kids to be themselves when it comes to gender

She recounts her first encounter with this teacher: “She sat down and introduced herself along the lines of, ‘Hello everybody! I’ll be doing feminist theories/questions with you for this module’, while looking around the room and making direct eye contact with me. She must have known about me…

“‘Did you hear? There’s a trans girl in the honours group this year. I have very specific beliefs on womanhood and mothering, and what it means to be a woman. I don’t believe in being trans and changing pronouns and all that new stuff. Feminist theory is about women, females,’ [she said].

“She was still looking directly [at me]. She was talking to me. This whole TERF charade was for me.”

This teacher went on to say that her course would not address any trans-specific issues and would rather deal with “experiences of real women” – something that Ryklief describes as “disrespectful and dehumanising”.

If I was sitting in a lecture venue where lecturers were like, ‘I’m Professor so-and-so and these are my pronouns’, no matter what degree [I was in], it would make me feel a lot [safer and more] comfortable in my learning environment.

“We could not believe that an educator, and intellectual, was being so violent to a student. She erased me… I have to thank my classmates who stood up for me. I knew there would be chaos, and that the department would again skinder [gossip]. But me? I never went back to that class. And I never dealt with her again.”

Beyond the adoption of policies such as the GDX framework, Ryklief acknowledges the importance of including more trans and gender-diverse people at every level of higher education.

“We need more trans teachers and trans lecturers… You can’t just do it in one specific place – this constant learning and unlearning is very important. Not just for those in administrative positions or power… but it’s important for everybody to do that.”

Elliot Howard, a trans undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, agrees with these sentiments, adding: “They’re the people who intrinsically understand what you’re going through on a level that cis people can’t and never will be able to, no matter how much they study it or anything.”

Howard started university in 2021, which also coincided with when he officially changed his pronouns and told the people in his life about his trans identity.

“I do feel – even as someone who’s… very open about being trans – very othered and very alone sometimes in a lot of my classes because I am very clearly like the only genderqueer person there,” said Howard.

He recalled an example of trans inclusivity in the classroom:

“I think something as small as normalising introductions with pronouns. If I was sitting in a lecture venue where lecturers were like, ‘I’m Professor so-and-so and these are my pronouns’, no matter what degree [I was in], it would make me feel a lot [safer and more] comfortable in my learning environment.”

Additionally, Howard would love to see a future where gender-affirming healthcare becomes normalised in tertiary institutions’ health and well-being programmes. The GDX model policy addresses this in section 9 of the framework, where healthcare provisions such as special leave of absence to receive gender-affirming care and access to gender-inclusive counselling services are outlined.

In a global context, where gender-affirming care is being outlawed in places like the US, this would be a significant act of solidarity with the trans community. And with growing hostility towards the LGBTQI+ community in Africa, notably in countries such as Uganda and Kenya, it is worth paying attention to the ways we can create safe spaces for queer and trans people in all spheres of life, including higher education. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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