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Sometimes, Silence is Violent: My response to being muz...

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Sometimes, Silence is Violent: My response as a UCT alumnus and guest lecturer to being muzzled by Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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Siv Greyson (academically published as Siv Tshefu) is an artist, academic, and activist located in Cape Town. They were trained at UCT and occasionally guest lecture for the Social Anthropology Department, but are currently working as a Research Assistant at the African LGBTQI+ Migration research Network, located at Wits.

I am not calling for justice at UCT. I write this to give Hope to LGBTQIAP+ people (my community); to say… just when I thought for sure this system had succeeded in killing me, that I got back up, and they can, too.

Recently, in response to a reactionary and accusatory letter that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published on her publicly accessible website, an author implicated by the assertions made by Adichie (that two writers she considered “friends” or “mentees” had no right to defend themselves or their community; that their defence was actually, in itself, an attack on Adichie’s integrity) published one of the most beautiful essays I have had the pleasure of reading. To begin said essay, OluTimehin Kukoyi reclaimed power while also pointing to the unfair dynamics of authority and non-authority at play, writing that “personal power provides all human beings with the right to define themselves. It is an act of violence to exert such powers of definition over other people without their consent or participation”. Kukoyi’s essay was a long time in the waiting. For weeks, I too – after reading the other incriminated author’s succinct and powerful rebuttals – was waiting with bated breath, asking myself: 

“How do you begin to respond to such a misrepresentation of yourself, your community, and what you have been fighting for? How do you begin to effectively present your raw feelings of pain and betrayal into a neat, legible piece of writing that panders to the expectations of respectability that had Nelson Mandela a worldwide household name while Steve Biko rendered a curiosity only for social scientists and student politicians? How do you defend yourself against someone who can make or break your career? And, most importantly, how do you not give into fear… instead channelling all the parts of you that are already fighting the world to be seen and heard to yet again give time and energy to people who simply do not want to listen or hear you?”

While I could have predicted that Kukoyi would eventually find answers to the above questions and formulate a response fit for a battle against a well-respected Trans Exclusionary Radical “Feminist”, I could have never predicted that less than a month after Kukoyi, I would be forced to reckon with my own Chimamanda. 

On Sunday, some time past 12 in the afternoon, while procrastinating on work and scrolling on Twitter, I came across a flier for an event that Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng was advertising. The blue, graphic designer’s dream of a poster read: “WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT LGBTQA+?” It’s important to note that the I for Intersex had been left out of the acronym – and while it is not necessary to always write every single letter (though learning a few letters is not much to ask considering the ways in which the world dehumanises and violates LGBTQIAP+ people daily), within the next four hours I would come to learn that my VC invited a urologist to speak about intersex newborns and intersex people. Thus, the omission here is but one of many transgressions that have led to this article. Nevertheless, I took the poster with a grace I have never had to summon before. I knew my responses – coming from a transgender activist, artist and academic (who recently underwent gender-affirming surgery), trained at UCT and who is currently lecturing across two undergraduate courses at UCT – would be surveyed and taken seriously, not just by my peers but by my colleagues and, ultimately, the VC (my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss). And, at the point of the VC sharing the poster, the event was still four hours away. 

What could I possibly say about an event that I had valid reasons to be triggered by but that had not yet happened? Naïvely, I did not follow my instinct – my instinct that told me that a urologist would be more interested in the genital mutilation of intersex babies instead of the sovereignty of the intersex identity as enough, not needing “L, G, B or T” to support its validity; my instinct reminded me that “Science” [see footnote below] put homosexuality in the DSM, that “Science” reduces transgender people like myself to our genitals on a daily basis, that “Science” STILL keeps transgender being in the DSM and that it means “Science” thinks I am sick/ill for simply existing, that “Science” is who initially called AIDS GRIDS, which stood for “Gay-related Immune Deficiency Syndrome” and resulted in many, MANY a gay man dying since no state cared for a disease that was only killing us faggots and trannies (see footnote below). Instead, I gave Prof Phakeng and her guest the benefit of the doubt. Soon, as the event approached, I began to be given reasons that the “benefit of the doubt” I gave this talk was prematurely awarded and extremely generous. 

11:46 

I tweeted, asking the VC if she had consulted the Gender Studies department prior to organising the event. The Gender Studies department at UCT is not the only department capable of having a nuanced discussion grounded in the lived experience of those being discussed. The Gender Studies department at UCT is also not the only space in the university where you can find transgender and/or intersex and/or gender diverse and/or queer (see footnote) academics who can speak to the topic from their own life stories. However, given the nature of the discussion, I find it interesting that the Gender Studies department at the VC’s own university was seemingly not included or consulted. 

11:46-12:16 

While awaiting confirmation on whether or not the Gender Studies department had been informed or consulted prior to the talk, I did my own research on the urologist, who I am naming for the first time here as Dr Kgomotso Mathabe. I have thus far avoided naming the urologist because my frustration is mainly with the VC. Why? Because (as demonstrated earlier in this letter), for decades the LGBTQIAP+ community have dealt with many a scientist who has undermined the legitimacy of transgender and/or intersex and/or gender diverse and/or queer existence. It is because of professionals whose work falls entirely in Science (see footnote 1) (which, as mentioned, is not the full story of human being) that fields like Social Anthropology and Gender Studies were formed; they were formed as a direct response to the single story Science told of transgender and/or intersex and/or gender diverse and/or queer people like me and the people I love. Thus, I don’t talk to said scientists and have no desire to start doing so now. That said, what the urologist has said in the past informs You, the reader, about why we (the LGBTQIAP+ community) are so angry. 

During my background research on Dr Mathabe, I found an interview from four years ago wherein the Doctor: 

  1. Conflated “gender” with “sex”, placing intersex folk and transgender folk in one grouping; 
  2. Upheld the false conceptualisation of the Gender Binary; 
  3. Used the word “problem” to describe intersex newborns. Talks of non-intersex newborns as “normal”. Said that if “the pregnant lady” has “extra hormones” in the form of contraception, this can lead to “damage to the baby” [why this is a problem]; and 
  4. Took five minutes and 51 seconds to acknowledge gender to be a continuum, a point at which I start my lectures at UCT. 

I am certain that there is more I could point out as “fake news” that was posed in the interview, but as I admitted in my tweets, I could not bring myself to finish it. At this point, the “benefit of the doubt” I had awarded Prof Phakeng began to taste sour in my mouth. Still, the interview was four years old. Things could have changed… right? 

12:16 

On Facebook, where I am connected directly to educators in (including the Head of) the Gender Studies department at UCT, as well as academics across the humanities who trained and taught me, I asked whether the Gender Studies department had been notified of the talk. As I came to learn later via the comments section, the answer was a resounding No.

15:57 

Some time had passed and as the 4pm event approached, I wondered if Prof Phakeng was reading our tweets at all. All signs pointed towards the necessity of replacing the urologist with someone more versed in LGBTQIAP+ issues, someone like my doctor – Dr Anastacia Tomson-Myburgh who has been fighting for the medical rights of transgender people, like herself, for YEARS. But instead, we were receiving tweets about technical difficulties and no indication of our pained voices being heard or seen. Still, I waited – literally shaking uncontrollably in anxiety – for the event to begin. Looking back, I knew even then how it would turn out, but I remained hopeful because for a black transgender, non-binary lesbian living in Cape Town but born in the Eastern Cape (where gender non-conforming people and lesbian people are disproportionately violated at the hands of homo-transphobia)… for someone like me, Hope is all you have.

16:00 

The show began. While Prof Phakeng set the tone by acknowledging the controversy of the talk, the rest of the piece showed less grace and willingness to listen to “opposing views”. The latter – Prof Phakeng’s refusal to listen to LGBTQIAP+ students, lecturers, employees, alumni, and members of the general public – showed itself most when Phakeng (following a few pointed questions that I posted on the Instagram forum) closed the comments section across the live platforms. I tweeted about this in detail here.

16:20 

Now, while I would love to break down the nitty gritties of what was said and why it was an issue, I have a sense that my colleagues/comrades/friends/lovers will be sharing many an article/blog/podcast/vlog to do their own deconstruction of What Was Actually Said [click here to watch Prof Phakeng’s recording of the event]. I am also unable (due to unavailable time or energy) to do both the work of deconstructing the content and deconstructing the content’s effect on myself or my community. However, what I will say about the event’s content is that the flurry of tweets sent directly to Phakeng on Sunday (and those not sent directly but posted for general comment, since the event, across platforms) demonstrate, the talk itself was a closed-off conversation, informed by homo-transphobia, unfairly discussing LGBTQIAP+ bodies as if they were lifeless and without history, emotion or agency. If you wish to read personal accounts from fellow LGBTQIAP+ people who watched the event, please take a look at my Twitter profile where I have retweeted some responses. In this piece of writing, instead, I wish to focus on How What What Said Made Me Feel. Which brings us to 18 minutes and 56 seconds into my own personal recording of the seminar (trigger warning – homo-transphobia). 

To put it lightly, as you heard in my personal recording of the incident, I broke down. It was at the mention of “cross-dressers” and “men who want to look like women” at which I felt myself slowly but surely slide into hopelessness. While I was typing my thoughts furiously to a close friend, eventually I couldn’t type anymore. I was stunned into immobility. I muted the Instagram Live and Twitter Space where I was listening and tried to collect myself. When I un-muted, the urologist was saying “… cause you feel that you’re a different gender on the inside and once that then… ” I paused again to breathe before unpausing for more. The doctor continued to talk through gender-affirming surgery, saying that intersex people (already mutilated at the discretion of the newborn intersex baby’s doctors and parents, now having grown into who they are years after the initial gendering and sexing process) could decide – with the help of a psychiatrist – what genitals and sexual markers they wanted changed. This is where I muted the conversation – not to pull myself together – but to let myself fall apart. 

16:23:40 

I muted the seminar. 

I cried. 

I messaged some friends in tears, in anger, in pain. 

I spiralled. 

My thoughts moved so fast yet so slowly with a clarity that scared me. 

I started to plot and plan a revenge. 

I no longer wanted to be nice and careful and respectful. 

I had said all the right things, done it the way they wanted me to (even though I knew I had a right to be angry, to be frustrated, to want to express my pain) and I still got silenced. It felt as if all the work I had personally done (as well as all the work my queer ancestors – I think of Simon Nkoli as I type this – who had done the work of allowing me to exist in the relative safety that I sometimes live in today) over the years was meaningless. 

No one cared – not the people watching the talk sharing hearts of support throughout the seminar, nor the VC of my university and temporary workplace. It was simple: my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss did not give a shit what I or anyone in my community had to say and neither did the public.

Recently, I had top surgery done (a gender-affirming surgery). Since then, I have been dealing with a lot of social dysphoria as a result of not being recognised as non-binary. Listen, I don’t kid myself, not many people know what non-binary means, let alone know to be careful of misgendering people… but I survive this knowledge of permanent invisibility by reminding myself that at least (at the very, very least) where I put my time and energy, I am actually seen and heard. 

I thought to myself, in a moment of utter hopelessness: “Maybe if I write a letter about this event and leave it next to my suicide letter, my body – my work, my activism, my art, my academic work will start to actually matter. Maybe people will read it. Maybe Daily Maverick will publish the letter with a well-written obituary written by Bev Ditsie (a dear friend) themselves.” 

16:24:35 

I stopped crying. 

I did not kill myself to make a political point. 

I un-muted the seminar to keep listening. 

17:00 

The seminar ended and I started to get my thoughts together, but there was too much to think about: 

  1. Why What Was Said was wrong? How the “wrong” of it can be learnt at a Gender Studies course at UCT called AXL1100S that first years usually enroll in, but is open to any student whose degree allows (see the UCT Humanities Faculty Handbook 2021, page 133); 
  2. Why it is that my clinically diagnosed depression allowed What Was Said to sink me so low, so fast, but also how I had built the capacity to “be okay” with a similar speed which is scary to witness, let alone experience; and finally 
  3. Why it is that What Was Said felt like it was being said directly to me. How it felt as if Prof Phakeng and the urologist were saying Siv Greyson is only their genitals, that Siv Greyson’s intersex friends were “problems” that needed fixing. 

Until now, I have not explained who I am. 

I am Siv Greyson (academically published as Siv Tshefu). I am an artist, academic, and activist living in Cape Town trying to make ends meet. My professional work outside UCT is as a Research Assistant at the ALMN (African LGBTQI+ Migration research Network, located at Wits) where I spend most of my time reading and working with material that explores the lived experiences of LGBTQIAP+ refugees and asylum seekers seeking a place of safety but are met with homo-transphobic bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is carried out both by homo-transphobic people who either don’t know better (are untrained) or who (simply put) do not see LGBTQIAP+ people as human. 

Inside of UCT: 1. I have self-“published” a thesis focused on Queer Artist-Activists with whom I did Queer Art-Activism; 2. I graduated with two cum-laude degrees. 3. Taught (and am currently teaching) gender theory to Gender Studies and Social Anthropology students across first, second and third year; and 4. Worked as an underpaid and overworked tutor for one semester. As an artist, I spent more than three years making vlogs on YouTube to show fellow black trans-queer people that it was possible to be Like Me and be Happy. I have since quit. Perhaps it is because I could not show people that anymore. 

As an activist, I form part of several small collectives of self-governed activists using our various skills to fight alongside occupations against gentrification as well as fighting for queer and trans peoples (as well as peoples of other disposessed and oppressed groups) against rampant South African homo-transphobia. My Instagram and Twitter accounts are testimony to the latter because it is the fight that was given to me, not the one I chose. When you are told you are at war, you have no choice but to pick up a weapon (whether it be thought, whether it be art, whether it be your body, or something sharper).

Every single day that I am alive, I fight for the LGBTQIAP+ community; my community, our community. Every single day. And I do this despite being diagnosed with a condition that threatens my life. I do this despite living in a world that makes it feel as if the more we take steps forward towards Queer Liberation, the harder Conservative/Right-Wing people push back. Every single day, I am climbing up an endless mountain with just a bottle of water, a sandwich, a sleeping bag, and a dream… And because people have climbed literal mountains and survived, I too believed I could fight homo-transphobia (or at least come close) and survive. 

And now, as I write this, a day after the incident, I am starting to wonder… will I survive this? 

At 17:11, I had a WhatsApp call with Bev Ditsie. First, we unleashed our frustrations into the space between us and hoped they could land in soft hands and understanding arms. They did. Bev understood me, I understood them. We saw each other and heard each other on that phone call. I was reminded again of Hope. Still, I said to them in a shaky child-like voice: “What if… what if I write this article and lose my job? What if I never teach at UCT again?” And they listened, intently “mhm”-ing in all the necessary places. Until they said something like: “Well, Siv, that is the thing. It’s about what you are willing to forgo… your income or… how you feel now. How you felt during the Twitter Space… the pain.” And as they spoke I felt something rise up in me. Was it hope? “I have to write that letter, Bev. For us. For me,” I said, a few minutes before we sent each other love and said our goodbyes. 

At 18:45, Jane Bennet (a dear mentor) messaged me to ask: “Are you okay?” At which I broke into tears, typing a message that read like it came from someone standing on a bridge ready to jump. She was gentle and kind and held me through my emotions. But beyond what she always already does, Jane said to me: “Siv, the mindsets of [Phakeng, the urologist, Chimamanda, etc] are not your land. Your land is Afrikan (Matebeni’s K), black, queer – and so beautiful” and, now calm and (dare I say) Hopeful, I was able to respond: “You’re right. I needed a reminder of that. That is where I tend to my plants [sic]. That’s where I take refuge. That is where I can sleep with both eyes closed, safely. They’re in my peeps.” She responded with a simple, meditated “yes”.

Because here is a Scientific fact (if we must be so obsessed with there being only one truth): I may never change the minds of Prof Phakeng, Dr Kgomotso Mathabe, or even Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but what I can do (as both Jane and Bev made obvious to me) is stand up for myself and my community and ensure we GET HEARD. I can refuse to be silenced. And, this is why this article exists. I have very little interest in what “happens” to UCT, their VC, their doctor or anyone else. I am not calling for justice at UCT, at least not in this letter. This letter is doing the work of continuing to give Hope to LGBTQIAP+ people (my community); to say… just when I thought for sure this system had succeeded in killing me, that I got back up, and they can, too. 

I will not be silenced. I will not accept defeat from homo-transphobia. I will continue to fight with my community on my side. I cannot lose (for I already have everything I need). 

Aluta continua. 

P.S. This piece may be published while I am admitted to a mental health facility. If that is the case, wish me luck. The journey of healing never ends. Oh, and Prof Phakeng/UCT, I saw your tweet. Personally, I said what I said, but I wish you the best in your endeavours. DM/MC

1 “Science” is written with a capital letter here because, as intended by the organisers and participants in the event, it is posited as an autonomous, non-permeable entity that moves with a mind of its own, as opposed to “science” (lower case) which is a large field of ever-changing perspectives, practitioners and theories that are not limited to knowledge produced by numbers or molecules. Gender Studies is a science, Social Anthropology is a science – but in the conversation Prof Phakeng held and defended as necessary, neither of these fields in which I am trained were heard in the catch-all “Science” with a capital S.

2 Never, ever assume you can ever call me a “faggot” or “tranny” without me beating you up or dying trying. 

3 I would like to note here that despite what was discussed in the talk, these existences (transgender, intersex and queer) are NOT one and the same thing. Yes, they are related experiences, but they are NOT the same. This matters. To conflate them would be akin to conflating Coloured Identity with Black Identity. Again, yes, they are RELATED, but they are not the SAME. To conflate obscures power, sovereignty, conflict and more.

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