An LGBTQ+ Mural Was Defaced at Wits University. So What Is Being Done Now to Tackle Abuse?
It’s vital that universities drive progress to keep LGBTQ+ students safe, secure, and empowered.
At Wits University in Johannesburg, a wall that had been painted in colours representing the LGBTQ+ community was defaced with hateful phrases.
Slurs and hateful words were scrawled on the newly-painted wall ahead of Wits Pride activities which took place at the end of August.
The case was reported to the university, and is being dealt with “in line with university policy which does not condone homophobic and transphobia on campus,” according to Tish White, the programme coordinator for sexual orientation and gender identity advocacy at the university.
But, as White told Global Citizen, it’s a “disappointing indication” of the fact that — despite safe spaces and celebration of the value of the LGBTQ+ community — universities can still present “a microcosm of a greater homophobic and transphobic society in which queer folk get murdered and raped for being queer with little support or appropriate anger from bystanders.”
The university, however, is making strides in tackling homophobia and abuse on campus.
According to a university statement, Wits Pride “offers safe spaces to discuss intersections of violence, get information on sexual orientations and gender identifies, find community in social events, and celebrate the immense value LGBTQ+ people offer to the entire university community.”
White said the university also has resources which it uses to train its members, such as the successful Safe Zones@Wits.
“We have two sexual orientation and gender identity advocacy programmes positioned not only to support LGBTQ+ people, but also to challenge and educate our university community on queerness — this is really important as a tool for change,” White said.
“We train allies for LGBTQ+ people on how to be supportive and resource them with knowledge on queerness,” he said, adding that over 180 allies have been trained to date and are located across the university community to ensure a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ people.
Wits University has also made great strides in recent months when it comes to ensuring the rights of all students, regardless of their sexual or self-orientation.
For example, in 2016, it announced that gender-neutral toilets would be made available across its four Johannesburg campuses.
“We have just celebrated the launch of our 34th gender neutral facility [a toilet which anyone may use, regardless of their gender] on our campuses,” says a statement on the university’s website.
According to the university, there has been a positive reception, particularly from parents of young children, and transgender students and staff.
“It is important to note that our transgender constituents may use any toilet of their preference, gendered or not, in line with the above etiquette and that no one has the right to ‘police’ this,” says the university. “To do so is transphobic in nature is not permitted.”
In South Africa, and around the world, the LGBTQ+ community still faces staggering levels of violence, abuse, and discrimination.
A 2017 report showed that four in 10 LGBTQ+ South Africans know of someone how has been murdered, simply “for being or suspected of being” LGBTQ+. And black people were twice as likely as white people to be one of those 40%.
Meanwhile, it found, only half of black LGBTQ+ people are completely open about their sexuality — largely because of the fear associated with “coming out.”
The report did note a “growing trend” of support for the LGBTQ+ community — but It’s still vital that universities take action to push forward change in terms of safety and security for LGBTQ+ students. If they don’t, the consequences can truly be life-changing.
Paul Nzimande, a former literature student at the university, told Global Citizen he had never felt safe as a student during the years he was at Wits.
Final day of Wits Pride Week🌈 pic.twitter.com/lpNJbQyzaG— WITS SASCO SUPER BRANCH (@SASCO_Wits) August 24, 2018
“My first year was horrible as I was a flamboyant gay man,” he said. “When you are like that, you become an easy target for homophobic people to attack you. I didn’t feel I safe and I become depressed and I locked myself in my room all the time. This really affected my marks.”
Nzimande said joining the Safe Zones@Wits programme, supported him in learning more about how to live his life freely.
“I no longer fear walking even downtown as I have liberated myself,” he said. “Those people at Safe Zones@Wits really help you to cope, understand yourself better, and how to be safe.”
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