Call me ‘they’ – then I can be me

09 April 2019

In the first of a new series of guest blogs from citizen journalists in southern Africa, Bokang Bane talks to Layla, a transwoman from Lesotho, about the importance of respecting preferred pronouns.

Image of transwoman from eSwatini

'You can’t make assumptions about which personal pronoun someone prefers based on their appearance.’

Layla, who used to be called Relebohile Motaung, was male-assigned at birth. Society expected her to fall in with her peers – to act as other boys did. However, this wasn’t how Layla felt or how she wanted to live, and, like any other citizen born and raised in Lesotho, she had to go through the process of acquiring identity documents. This quickly became an issue, especially when it came to ticking a gender-marker box. Identifying as a transwoman and being stuck with identification documents that contradict that identity, is one of the most difficult issues that Layla faces.

‘It’s very important to ask someone’s preferred pronoun to make them feel comfortable with you – to talk about anything without fear,’ she says.

Most people are considered to be ‘cisgender,’ meaning that their gender identity matches their physical identity. The heteronormative narrative is: ‘I was born with male parts and I have always felt male.’ Yet an increasing number of people are conflicted between how they feel on the inside and how they present on the outside. Physical sex does not determine gender. In other words, genitals are not gender.

‘We live in a country where people believe what they see, not what they are told. I look at my Identification documents and [the lack of provision for my identity] pierces through me. I feel rejected,’ says Layla.

Layla endorses the idea of adding a third-person pronoun, or gender-neutral pronoun options to official documents: ‘Even if a service provider tries to make me feel free, if all the questions still refer to “male” or “female”, I still feel misrepresented.’

So we should be asking what a person’s preferred personal pronouns are rather than make an assumption based on what we perceive their gender to be. Pronouns are a matter of identity. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with gendered pronouns; it’s just that the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ come with a set of expectations about how someone should behave, express their identity and relate to the world.

Today, our understanding of gender has been transformed by the cultural visibility of the transgender, gender-queer and gender non-conforming community. Awareness of gender diversity is greater than ever before. However, people continue to struggle with language issues – including the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

While diversity and inclusion have long been focussed on by human rights activists, gender-neutral pronouns don’t get much of an airing. Viewing people either as female or male is limiting, and it’s when these limits are pushed that the shortcomings of language are exposed.

There’s no law in Lesotho that makes provision for transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people to change the gender markers in their identification documents. As it stands, transgender people who use a passport that doesn’t reflect their gender expression could be charged with committing an offence. While Chapter II of Lesotho’s constitution sets out the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, there is no mention of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The inclusion of ‘they’ in official documents as a set option for a third-person, singular pronoun in English would be an excellent start and would begin to promote a safer environment for non-cisgender people in Lesotho.

Author: Bokang Bane
“I’m a radio presenter from Lesotho. What I enjoy most about my work as a citizen journalist is the chance to capture stories of the LGBT+ community and getting to hear what other people have gone through. It’s humbling and overwhelming, but at the same time it’s a great learning experience and has opened doors for me to collaborate with other people.”

Image credit: Key Correspondents