Yesterday, we all had the pleasure of meeting the beautiful Caitlyn Jenner, who covers the latest edition of Vanity Fair. Ice-cream manufacturers Magnum recently put out a campaign titled Be True To Yourself featuring some recognisable gender non-conforming individuals, including RuPaul’s Drag Race star William Belli. In April, British retailer Selfridges put out their Agender campaign, complete with a video featuring a non-conforming protagonist and dancers. Telling the gender of any of them is a bit of a guessing game. Welcome to it, say hello: a post-gender society is within sight. At least this, here, queen hopes so.
As I’m pretty sure anyone with a little bit of an attention span and a slight interest in current affairs will know, gender identity is a bit of a hot topic right now. And when we speak of gender, we’re not talking about whether you are a man or a woman (please come to the 21st century with me); we’re talking about one’s gender identity, birth sex has very little, to nothing to do with it.
For the better part of the current year, I’ve been reading up a lot about non-conforming individuals across the world and how schools and Universities in other parts of the world are moving to quash the gender stigma by recognising the existence of gender identities beyond the binary. These stories, in the South African context, are hard to come by, which is why I was delighted when a friend sent me a Mail & Guardian piece by an award-winning South African journalist and photographer who identifies as genderqueer. Demelza Bush, pictured above, currently works at Sonke Gender Justice, continuing the work they do, exposing social injustices.
When I got in touch, I addressed Demelza as “her” and was very quickly corrected, which is great. We are all still trying to get our heads around the idea of the multiplicity of gender thanks to how we’ve been socialised, and, for me, it was just a reminder that what we’ve been taught- that a vagina makes you a girl and a penis makes you a boy- is not necessarily true. We need to rid ourselves of the mindset and let people live. I spoke to Demelza about the current state of gender identity issues in society.
Who are you and what do you do?
I studied journalism, specialising in Television and Photography, for five years at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. It was there that I first became interested in activism, particularly in opposing homophobia and gender based violence. I worked as a multimedia reporter at the Mail & Guardian for four and a half years. During my time there I covered everything from politics to art but always had a particular interest in queer issues and exposing human rights abuses. And I am currently the Multimedia Associate at Sonke Gender Justice.
I read somewhere that you are an award-winning journalist. Why did you choose to go into journalism?
I have been really fortunate throughout my career and have won an SABC Young Journalist of the Year Award, a CNN Digital Journalist of the Year award and two Sikuvile Multimedia awards. I chose journalism because I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, to the minorities, those who society would sometimes rather forget. I wanted to be able to expose human rights violations and social injustices.
The University of Vermont in the US recently officially recognised “gender queer” as a third gender and banks in the UK are adding Mx as an honourific on their official forms. There are many positive developments that one can point to around the acceptance of gender multiplicity around the world. What are your thoughts on it and what are your personal favourite examples of where this is happening?
I think it shows great progression that genderqueer people are being recognised and that, at least in some places, we are moving away from the gender binary. But unfortunately, I am also acutely aware that society still has a very long way to go. When a person is pregnant, the first question we ask is, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ We, as a society, are obsessed with putting people into easy-to-understand boxes, and until we can all become more open to things we don’t necessarily understand immediately, and learn to respect and love each other because of our differences, instead of using them against each other, we will continue to have a very long way to go.
What are your thoughts on the South African context?
We are in a Dickensian predicament of it being both the best and the worst of times. This is because we have arguably the best Constitution in the world, while gross human rights violations continue to occur in our communities. I stand to be corrected, but I think Rhodes University has also recently introduced Mx as an option and I see this as hugely progressive as South Africa is far behind many other countries in terms of recognising a third gender. In light of the recent Irish vote on gay marriage, which is problematic in and of itself, as equality should not need to be voted on, it is a human right, but it must be good to know that as a queer person in Ireland, you have the support of your country. If we had the same vote in South Africa, I think it’s highly unlikely that gay marriage would have been voted in.
You wrote in the Mail & Guardian that you identify as genderqueer? In layman terms, what does this mean?
Genderqueer is a label for people who don’t fit into boxes. One definition of genderqueer is: “Denoting or relating to a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions, but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.”
I’m pretty sure even after you tell people what genderqueer means you still get some annoying questions. What is the most ignorant and annoying question you’ve ever been asked?
I understand that this is a new and difficult topic for many people and I think the worst thing one can do is isolate people by telling them their questions are stupid. So my answer is there are no stupid questions. I would much prefer people ask the questions they have, than be left wondering and/or believe something that isn’t true.
What do you think are the most common misconceptions about gender in general?
Both that gender is binary and that gender is biological when in fact gender is a social construct.