By Sian Wilson
Iviwe Mzandisi enters a room and heads turn. With her undeniable style, the confidence she radiates and her unapologetic, self-accepting attitude, it’s nearly impossible to deny her the attention she commands. As she sits with me, dressed in a bottle-green bodycon dress and sneakers fit for campus treks, she flips her hair over her shoulder and bats her colourfully eyeshadowed eyes at me expectantly. At 22, Iviwe is the first transgender woman of colour to have represented UCKAR in the race for the title of Miss Varsity Shield 2019; a great honour and dignifying pursuit for all members of the LGBTIA++ community here on campus and nationwide.
Iviwe opens up about the discrimination she has experienced on and off campus. We talk about what Miss Varsity Shield meant for her and for her community, her future plans and her personal style, and how she hopes to encourage fellow members of the LGBTQIA++ community to “live, learn, and unlearn” while breaking societal boundaries.
Sian: When did you come out, and what was that like?
Iviwe: It wasn’t a sit-down-and-have-a-meeting kind of thing. There was no big reveal. My family always knew I was queer. There was one conversation I had with my grandmother. We were watching TV, and I was like “I can’t wait until I have breasts”, and I just listed all of these things I was planning on doing to my body. Like, “Listen, sis, this is how it’s gonna be.” I think in that moment she realised I was serious. I mean, I am a woman.
S: Comparing the metropolis that is Johannesburg, where you’re from, to small town Makhanda, how have your experiences as a transgender woman of colour differed?
I: Well, disclaimer, UCKAR campus is not real life. Here you can live your life. It’s a safe little bubble, an illusion. But when you go back home, you have to face receiving backlash for being who you are. It’s tougher. I experience the most discrimination in Johannesburg. When I want to go thrifting in the CBD, I have to navigate the streets carefully. I know which streets to avoid. I don’t even have to be dressed overly feminine, but I’ll be called a demon by strange men on the road. It’s a really tricky situation, because once you engage or react, you’re trapped in a confrontation. Sometimes the way I’m harassed is for people’s entertainment. All in one day, I can be called a demon or sexually harassed. To black men especially, I am an offense to them. On campus, though, I don’t experience any outward discrimination, but because people are silenced by the fear of the consequences of being queerphobic. However, I do surround myself with people who are accepting of me and my community.
S: What is Miss Varsity Shield as you perceive it, and why did you decide to run?
I: Miss Varsity Shield is that one individual who is going to represent the university by promoting the university’s ideals, and supporting our team. And, why shouldn’t I have run? I have this voice in my head constantly that is like, “No, Iviwe. You’re trans.” I had an idea of what kind of people were supposed to run, and that didn’t seem like me. But a lot of my friends, and even strangers, would tell me to just do it. Something about putting myself up for public scrutiny in a cis-het world was scary to me, but then I made top 17 and I realised I was breaking the boundaries of the “supposed to”. And now it’s becoming beyond me; it’s about representation. It’s about having another body in that space, disrupting that space.
S: Just by running for Miss Varsity Shield, whether or not you make it, you are building bridges between the queer community and the rest of
South Africa through this process. As Miss Varsity Shield, you would be representing UCKAR as well as the LGBTQIA++ community to other South African universities. What are you hoping to promote through this?
I: I want to challenge the ideas and stereotypes that people have about transgender women specifically. I want to be a voice, but I don’t want to stifle the voices of other queer people. I don’t want to be the face of any campaign. I just want to show them that it’s possible. I won’t sell them dreams and fantasies by saying how easy it is, or can be. It is hard, but it is possible; people shouldn’t limit themselves based on their queerness, blackness, whiteness, or by being anything other than the “supposed to”.
Iviwe, moved by the love and support she had been receiving during her campaign, still emphasises that her intentions are not to start a movement, or to become the face of a campaign to end all forms of gender-based discrimination. Instead, she wants to prove that one’s gender-identity should not be the reason they exist in the shadows. For Iviwe, making it to the top 17 was enough of a triumph for herself and her community. Despite not being nominated as Miss Varsity Shield 2019, she hopes that next year, more walls will come down, more bridges will be built and more people will feel encouraged to empower and uplift themselves by participating in things they are not “supposed to” be a part of.