The LGBTQI+ community has long faced intolerance and hatred for being true to themselves and their personal style. For some, clothing is a way to express their true selves, but for others, it can be a source of fear and danger. Mzansi has seen too many tragedies due to hate crimes, often targeting women who dare to defy societal norms.
Negative attitudes and victimisation can have a devastating impact on your well-being. Health For Mzansi spoke to a few young women who are not afraid of expressing themselves, and they share stories of their journeys of heartache, self-acceptance and empowerment.
‘Clothes enhance my sense of self’
Xolisa from Milnerton in Cape Town who prefers to just use her first name, says she has experienced a lifetime of discrimination for dressing in ways that are typically considered masculine. But her choice of clothing is not an attempt to be anything other than herself.
After much personal reflection and self-acceptance, she has become comfortable with who she is, regardless of societal expectations or judgments.
“I’ve been told that I want to be a man. I ignore every comment that comes by. However, it has gotten to a point whereby I feel unsafe and it’s actually stressful,” she explains.
“As someone who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I often encounter prejudice and hostility from strangers, especially from within my own black community. Strangers may express their rudeness in sudden and unexpected ways, leaving me feeling shocked and hurt.”
She says despite the progress that has been made towards acceptance, there is still much work to be done.
Xolisa stresses that even though she has not been subjected to physical harm, the emotional toll of the stigma and discrimination she has faced has been significant. She is particularly affected by the negative comments made about her appearance, as they go to the very core of who she is.
Her hope is for a future in which such comments will no longer be made, and all people will be treated with respect and acceptance.
‘I avoid going to specific areas’
Despite identifying as a girl, Zilungile Zimela from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape chooses to dress in a more masculine way, yet she expresses deep respect for cultural norms and traditions. For example, when she attends a funeral or wedding, she will ensure she is dressed appropriately for the occasion, wearing a skirt or dress and covering her head, shoulders, and arms.
“There has been occasional stare from people, men in particular who’d stare at me in an uncomfortable way,” Zimela says.
From a young age, Zimela has presented herself in a more masculine way, and has been referred to as “unongayindoda“, which means “the boyish one”. While this term may be seen as derogatory in some contexts, Zimela clarifies that in her community, it was not used in a hateful way. It was simply a way to describe her appearance and style.
“Education around this is needed, but I don’t think it’s the only solution. There needs to be a shift in the way people think and feel about gender so that everyone can be accepted and valued for who they are.”
Zimela stresses that everyone should be able to express themselves in a way that feels most authentic to them, without fear of violence or discrimination.
The height of society’s patriarchy
Ndumi Funda, founder and director of Luleki Sizwe Womyn’s project from Gugulethu, Cape Town, highlights the issue of dress codes as a major challenge for children who are non-conforming to gender stereotypes.
She identifies the patriarchal attitudes that are deeply ingrained in many communities as the root cause of this problem.
Funda emphasises that the issue of gender norms goes much deeper than just a child’s choice of clothing. Even before the child reaches the stage of exploring their sexuality, society has already imposed strict expectations of how they should dress and behave based on their assigned gender at birth.
“You are not obligated to provide an explanation to anyone about why you dress in a certain way. Respect is a two-way street – you respect others and expect the same in return.”
These harmful gender norms can lead to emotional abuse and cause deep damage to a child’s self-esteem. It is not only about hate crimes but also about the way society judges and stigmatises people for their clothing choices and gender expression, Funda adds.
Your choice, your freedom
“It is not necessary to justify your clothing choices or gender expression to anyone. Everyone should be free to dress in a way that feels authentic and true to themselves.”
Funda says what we wear does not define who we are. “Our worth is determined by our character, not by the opinions of others. We should never allow society’s judgment to dictate our choices or make us feel less than we are. Instead, we should embrace our uniqueness and stand tall, knowing that our true value comes from within.”
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