Is Stellenbosch trans-inclusive: Transgender students respond

“It’s not safe out there. Stellenbosch is a bubble” –  transgender student.

Gender-neutral bathrooms, different student cards and moreover the spreading of awareness of the challenges faced by transgender students. These are some of the issues that will be highlighted on International Trans Visibility Day on 31 March 2017.

According to the Senior Director of Student Affairs at Stellenbosch University, Birgit Schreiber, the university aims to include gender neutral bathrooms and disability facilities as a standard of improvement when upgrading bathrooms. “There are a number of gender neutral bathrooms in residences, academic buildings and administration,” she says.

However, a trans student who wished to remain anonymous was skeptical. “I’m in a residence and have served on leadership boards for two years. I have never heard about these bathrooms.” The student says that, while it is helpful that these bathrooms exist on campus, the real problem is with popular spots around town, such as malls and pubs.

“Gender-neutral bathrooms are not clearly marked on campus, they are not easily accessible and they are predominantly non-existent,” adds another student, Elana (Ethan-Luke) Ryklief from LesBiGay.

Schreiber was unable to say where all the gender-neutral bathrooms are but she says that some can be found at the Centre for Student Communities, the Centre for Student Leadership and Structures, the Unit of Academic Counselling and the Equality Unit.

In 2017 the University included the title “Mx” on its application forms. This gives gender nonconforming students a formal way to identify themselves. This option is also available for registered students.

Although Ryklief acknowledges these changes, she adds that this is not effective “if future, present and past individuals do not benefit from its transformations equally”. She does not think it is adequate that the university responds reactively when students demand it, instead of acting in a more proactive way.

Students on the Rooiplein at Stellenbosch University. PHOTO: Dalaine Krige

She goes on to say that queer individuals often live dual lives. Schreiber says that this is due to disjunctures between the University’s ability to change formal systems and cultures found in schools, families, churches and other social institutions. Individuals are often put in situations where they have to hide their trans or queer identity to be accepted in these institutions.

Schreiber feels that stereotypes amongst students and within cultures, as well as social judgements, need to be challenged.

The anonymous student added that “we still live in South Africa”. The student felt that no matter how much the University transformed, the society outside of its boundaries would remain conservative.

Ryklief feels that universities are places where students are able to express themselves and explore who they are without restrictions. The University should do its best to ensure that the prejudice of the outside community is not allowed in residences, lecture halls and other university facilities.

“It would be great if we remove the gender markers on our student cards,” says another student when asked about what steps the University could take to improve the lives of trans people. These gender markers create unnecessary complications in the lives of those students who are in the process of transitioning.

Ryklief concludes: “The biggest problem facing transgender individuals in society is a lack of understanding, invasive questioning regarding our bodies, public humiliation, provocation,  misgendering – both formally and informally.” – Dalaine Krige