Pic: Ihsaan Haffejee
Students at universities who identify with the LGBTQ+ community still face daunting challenges even though these institutions are viewed as liberal and progressive.
This is according to Tish White, the program coordinator for sexual orientation and gender identity advocacy at Wits University.
White was addressing a group of students at the opening of Wits Pride 2017, an annual week long event to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and to celebrate diversity at the university.
“Campus populations are just extensions of broader society and so we see that some people still carry a negative attitude towards those who are viewed as different,” said White.
A challenge, said White, was that students attending university for the first time and “coming out” as gay or lesbian do not find the necessary support structures at the university. “That is why at Wits we started the Safe Zone project,” she said.
One of the main goals of the Safe Zone project is to help LGBTQ+ people at Wits feel safer. “Most of the time it’s just students coming to terms with the fact that they are coming out for the first time and they are feeling alone, feeling scared and they want to find others like them,” said White. “I truly believe that everyone at the university can work together so that we can change spaces for the better.”
As part of the opening, a Queer Wedding was held on the steps outside the Great Hall. Zanele Hlonwane and Juliet Magatanatos participated in a mock symbolic wedding (pictured above).
“We stand here in pride, in solidarity and in defiance with what it means to be in a positive, beautiful and queer relationship. And if that’s not worth celebrating I don’t know what is,” said White as she officiated the ceremony.
Natasha [not her real name], a first year engineering student said that it was encouraging to see the LGBTQ+ people coming out and supporting each other at events like this because in the small community from which she’s from being lesbian is frowned upon. While staying in Johannesburg Natasha feels free to express her attraction to women, but hides her identity when she returns home for fear of being stigmatised.
A 2015 survey conducted by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory showed that only 56% of respondents felt that gays and lesbians deserve equal rights. This was a significant drop from the 2013 survey when 71% agreed with the statement. Even more worrying was that 14% of respondents agreed that it’s acceptable to be violent to gay and lesbian people.
Wits Pride 2017 will run from 21 to 25 August and will culminate with a Pride March at the Great Hall stairs on Friday.
Article by Ihsaan Haffejee. First published by GroundUp.