ILGA meets... Leigh Ann van der Merwe

“I am a proud trans woman and an unapologetic feminist”: these were the words this South African activist chose to open her speech at a side event during the latest Human Rights Council, where she presented a study on violence against trans women in her country. A member of the United Nations steering committee for transgender people in the Global South, Leigh Ann van der Merwe is also the founder of S. H. E., the Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa. We met her to learn more about her work.


How did you become involved in the defence of human rights?

I am a trans woman who grew up in rural South Africa, a so-called democratic State where sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned in the Constitution but there is really no equality, and there is a lot of discrimination going on. It was important for me to help others but also to find my own healing in the process. I was able to help other trans women through my own struggles, and that is how I became part of the human rights movement.

Was there a particular moment that made you decide it was time to become more involved?

Yes, there was a moment - it was back in 2006 while I was seeking health services in a public hospital in South Africa. What I saw made me realize that somebody had to take a stand; being sent to these public hospitals, walking up and down, getting no good services and having to face lack of access to surgery and hormones is really not OK. I think seeing all this made me shift and become more involved.

You grew up in the Eighties in South Africa: what memories do you have from those moments of the struggle for the liberation?

I still carry with me that socialization according to which a person of colour was programmed to be inferior: I constantly bring that memory in my current analysis. One of my sisters was involved in the race struggle and so somehow I was also planted into it. I remember growing up as a gender diverse child, the struggles of people coming from the settlements and the outskirts of town and having public protests... Coupled with that, there was definitely a sense of fear. As far as I am concerned, that was the race struggle: the next thing to work on for us will be the gender revolution.

South Africa was the first to bring a SOGI resolution at the Human Rights Council, and the South African Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Nevertheless a handful of reports keep talking about violence against the LGBTI community, and especially about 'corrective rapes' against LBT women. What is the real situation of LGBTI people living in South Africa?

I think that in order to answer this question one would have to look at intersections. I always try to bring one of those in my analyses, which is the issue of race: I think for people of colour in South Africa the situation is still hugely problematic. We have a Constitution, certainly, but what does the Constitution mean when I get raped in my rural township at night?
There isn’t enough political commitment. We have a good Constitution; South Africa brought the SOGI resolution at the Human Rights Council in 2011, but it’s also playing the “head in the sand” game. It is not outspoken on the issues of neighbouring countries, for example: I don’t think South Africa provides adequate asylum to those who flee their countries because they are persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity. South Africa has to clean its own house first; they always want to portray themselves as a beacon of hope and a model of best practices, and they are not.

You studied journalism. How do you think LGBTI issues are portrayed by South African media outlets? Are they spoken about correctly, or do you think media professionals could be trained to be more respectful?

The situation has definitely improved from the sensationalist reports you used to find in the past. We do a lot of advocacy about this issue - our organization prepared a media package for media partners and we had them write articles in the way we wanted them to. But this is not all: whenever we have workshops on violence, a media representative joins us and presents other media outlets with some good practices in reporting. Thanks to this work, we have reached a point where community papers write articles about LGBTI issues and send it to us for approval before they publish it.

Your organization is called S. H. E., and it is described as a trans-feminist organization. Can you explain to us the connection between trans issues and feminism? Do you think trans women are marginalized amongst women and LGBTI movements?

Well, the “L”, the “B” and the “T” are in LGBTI, but this is not without its struggles. And, since we have started our organization in 2011, I don’t think there has been a real shift in the feminist discourse to be more inclusive.
For us it just makes sense to use a feminist perspective when we do a contextual analysis of our identities and of the spaces we find ourselves in: there is no better lens than that to look at our lives. Let’s consider the issues of resources (for HIV prevention): they are mainly placed on MSM, men who have sex with men. And yet, a report indicated that trans women are 49% more likely than any key population to contract HIV! Then, my question is: what better analysis than a feminist one can try and place these issues in context?

What kind of work is S. H. E. doing?

At a provincial level we do a lot of service provision on HIV, and we also have two important feminist programs: the African Transformative Feminist Leadership Institute every two years, and the Feminist Winter and Summer Schools. We will soon start our new summer school, and we will be talking about how to connect the dots between trans women and the public roles of women. We hope to have a space where to talk about what feminism means to us in the African context: I am sure we are not gonna get a definitive answer to this question, but discussions will bring us closer to finding one, and will help us deepen our analyses.

[interview and video by Daniele Paletta]

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