Feminists We Love: Leigh Ann van der Merwe – The Feminist Wire

Feminists We Love: Leigh Ann van der Merwe

Leigh Ann van der Merwe was born in 1982 in Ugie, Eastern Cape of South Africa. Growing up as a gender questioning person, she struggled to conform to typical male gender codes and as a result always felt left out both in family life and at school. Leigh Ann’s first gender challenge was attempting to play on the Ugie High School Netball team. Netball is a typical female sport code in South Africa. She struggled through high school and graduated from Blackhealth High School in 2000. She enrolled for an LL.B degree with the University of the Western Cape in 2001 but did not complete due to financial difficulty. She started working as a controller at a security management firm. It was through another trans woman that Leigh Ann was introduced to trans activism in 2007.  Her experience of activism includes being a candidate in the Transitioning Africa Exchange Program from 2010 to 2011. Leigh Ann was also a fellow in the Open Society/Austrian American Foundation/Transgender Centre of Excellence program in Salzburg, Austria during October 2011 and presented at a transgender consultation at UNAids in Geneva during November 2011. She holds a seat on the United Nations steering committee for transgender people in the Global South. Leigh Ann reviewed a number of gender literature resources produced by other NGO’s and was part of the study team on a UNFPA report on the challenges of sex workers in the East London area. She is actively involved with a number of NGO’s dealing with gender & women’s issues, HIV and public health. She is also the secretary of the board of an East London based NGO working with orphans and vulnerable children. She presented two papers at the first ever Gender Dynamix Transgender Health and Research Conference, November 2011. Her paper on Transgender Feminism is currently under review for the New Voices in Psychology publication with the University of South Africa. In 2012, Leigh Ann received an award from the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in recognition of her work as a Women’s Rights Defender. She holds a certificate in Community Journalism from the University of South Africa and is working towards finalising a B.A. degree in Communication Science. She is very passionate about feminism and women’s rights.

TFW: Tell us about yourself.

Leigh Ann van der Merwe: I grew up in a small town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa called Ugie. My family always joke and say that if you don’t hit the brakes of your car fast and hard enough, you might just slip right through Ugie. I grew up with my grandmother who is the strongest person I know. My mom passed when I was two years old. I am the last born of twelve kids. I was raised in a house full of other children and what I remember fondly is telling ghost stories in front of our old “pearl” stove. Growing up I was a really feminine little boy but I was always reminded of my masculinity and how I should accept and embrace that. In the same breath I want to express how my family contradicted that “male” affirmation because somehow I was always expected to curl everyone’s hair on a Sunday afternoon, and the one thing that tied me to my late Aunt Mavis, is how the two of used to water her house plants on a Sunday morning. She always used to show me how to cook this and how to bake that… so much for affirming masculinity, and whatever that means in an African context!

Even though I could not comprehend feminism as a philosophy at the time, I somehow could not get over being expected to do some things for my male cousins when they could do it themselves. At this point in life, I fully understand those actions were part of the social programming that we “do” certain things for male figures as part and parcel of patriarchy.  I grew up amongst very masculine men who did very masculine things like hunting, fishing, playing sports but it didn’t interest me. I was always in the kitchen, playing house (being someone’s wife – it’s really funny now, the idea of being someone’s wife) or on the netball field, where I played the position of defender. I grew up in the eighties and had so much admiration for the political struggle for freedom in South Africa at the time. I used to love chanting along to the struggle songs that sometimes came on the radio and silently I promised myself I would somehow, some way to be part of the change, and that silent promise led me to a commitment to human rights for all.

TFW: How did you eventually come to feminism and how do you live feminism in your life and activism now?

Leigh Ann van der Merwe: OK, so growing up, the way I envisioned my life was that I would transition from male to female, get married (I already had my partner in mind), adopt a child…or two or three, get a job (maybe in parliament) for myself, buy a house, and buy a car (in my mind this was a Toyota Camry). I would sit and dream about this for hours and hours. All I wanted to do was to leave this small town, travel to the city and start building on my dream. This dream took a knock in 1999 when my sister was killed by her lover. I never got over that. Indeed I moved away, I finished high school and started university. Things didn’t go as planned and I ended up right back at home. I got a job (not my dream job – nowhere remotely close to it), I lost sight of my dreams, I gained weight, I realized how alien the world can be if you don’t fit the “norm”-whatever that might be.  I joined the transgender movement and I started fighting for the human rights of people but somehow, somewhere, something was lacking. For some reason, I couldn’t stand the idea of being expected to fulfill certain gender roles (in my newly very affirmed and very accepted gender role at that point in time). I completed an internship at Gender DynamiX and was mentored by a good friend and old colleague. He opened my eyes to the reality of life for women – and now I am a woman, as I have always been in my heart and mind. So, my gender identity and the expression thereof was widely accepted but I felt oppressed by being an educated woman and yet I had to submit to the choices men in my family made. I very publicly took up the feminist label but before I did that, I had to ponder on what cisgender (non transgender) women would say of me being born and socialized as a male (well… socialized as a male … I am not so sure of that but anyway…). I had to reflect on what it meant to be a transgender woman and being a feminist and then it dawned on me that this was an issue to be addressed in the context of formal organizing. The way that I live and breathe my feminism is the fact that I get up each morning; go to an organization that I founded. I haven’t had a salary for the last two years but I have not had a better love than this baby that I am raising. In two years, it has gone from a simple idea to what it is now: S.H.E.

TFW: S.H.E focuses on African Trans Feminisms – how do you define this frame and what do you feel African Trans Feminisms bring to the feminist movement?

Leigh Ann van der Merwe: I don’t want to think of African Trans Feminism as something distinct from any other form of feminism. I don’t think that I can attach one single definition to it. For me, Trans Feminism is a transformative way of thinking about feminism, feminism inclusive of all identities; especially those pushed to the margins like HIV+ women, sex workers, differently abled women, transgender and intersex women, refugees and internally and externally displaced individuals. I see all those identities in Trans Feminism. The use of the word Trans for me is not specifically used in the context of gender variance but Trans (formative): an alternative to the brand of feminisms typified by rigid practices and ideologies like hairy armpits and unshaven legs, power hierarchies about who belongs and who doesn’t. Trans Feminism brings a fresh perspective to feminism, an “out of the box” approach. A feminism where we don’t articulate the same patriarchal values we wanted to move away from in the first place.

TFW: You grew up in a relatively conservative, ‘traditional’ home and community where patriarchy was entrenched and justified in ‘culture’.  What has that meant for you and how do you feel the African feminist movement can shift discourses and practices on tradition and culture away from oppression and patriarchy?

Leigh Ann van der Merwe: I remember in my childhood, there were certain things a woman could not even say. For me, that means their are/were certain things that women could not even think about. Patriarchy is so entrenched in our societies to the extent where women get frustrated every morning about what to wear, how to do her hair (bad hair days), how to articulate her own issues… all very political statements that we overlook because we have been socialized to think that these are all petty women’s issues.  Little do we know that our insecurities about the length of our dresses are something rooted far deeper into a system, which we are made to believe, is part of solid moral social fabric!  I grew up in a traditional, Christian home where we had bible studies on Thursdays and Sunday service right in our living room. I have been raised to believe that God is everything, never to question all the things that go wrong in life…. to believe in good and evil and that good will triumph over evil one day and (the best one) that my feminine ways might lead me to the burning fires of hell. The burning fire of hell is right here and right now!

African feminism can steer us away from this mentality. We need more young African feminists to contend with patriarchy the very minute it surfaces in our practices. African feminism will raise the smart girl child who will be able to think and comprehend for herself into the woman who will be able to articulate her own issues. Our feminist activism must gear up to develop the female leaders of tomorrow.

TFW: Who have been your inspirations and how have they shaped you?

Leigh Ann van der Merwe: Wow… there have been so many. In earlier years, it has been Oprah. I just love the idea of an independent black woman who is so successful and who does not have the need to define her existence by relationships or marriage. I have the utmost respect for South African struggle icons like Lillian Ngoyi and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The modern day feminists that I love and respect include: Thule Madonsela, Preggs Govender, Tsitsi Dengaremba, Hakima Abbas, Jessica Horn and Zanele Muholi. I have so many role models in my inner circle. They include: Dr. Mzikazi Nduna, Liesl Theron, Marion Stevens, Gabrielle Le Roux, Daphney Conco, Jane Bennett, and Sally Shackleton. I just draw love and inspiration from all these women in my life.

TFW: What is your vision for Africa and the trans feminist movement and what role do you hope to play in that?

Leigh Ann van der Merwe: I will be very frank and say that our first move should be to get transgender women to think beyond pink feathery outfits and high heels and realize there are far bigger political issues at play. I want to see a strong movement where transgender women, alongside sex workers, HIV+ women, differently abled women and so many other identities, are made room for in feminist spaces. A strong movement where we don’t see each other as the enemy and realize that we need to address the inequalities stemming from patriarchy. I want to see a trans African Feminist movement where all these women typically pushed to the margins, have seats in our governments, in positions where they are leaders, in positions where they are policy makers. I want to see equality and justice for ALL women. What is my role in all of this? It all starts with me!