Human, Right?

No matter race, gender or body; we all deserve our human rights

Words: Sandiso Ngubane | Photographs: Rudi Geyser

Last month South Africa celebrated Human Rights Day (or Sharpeville Day, depending on which side of the ‘the ANC hijacked the anti-Apartheid struggle’ debate you sit). While most of us are only too happy to have a long weekend, as was the case this year, we often lose the opportunity to reflect on just what this day means.

What is a human right? Who gets to enjoy these rights, and why? It’s only too easy to assume that because our Constitution guarantees us all the basic right to exist, then all is well; braaivleis, pap, wors, chakalaka, beer, what’s gooood? 

Not to stop the jol lorrie, but let’s also acknowledge the struggles that many still face as far as enjoying the basic right to exist, the right to dignity, and the right to express oneself without often having to experience erasure and downright hate in the form of sexism, homophobia, and other kinds of discrimination. In other words, let’s acknowledge that not everyone gets to enjoy their human rights.

One such person is Genna Gardini, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) while trying to complete her MA in Playwriting at the University of Cape Town in 2014. Since August last year Genna has been in a wheelchair as a result of the symptoms of her MS being exacerbated after she endured a bad fall.

“MS is a disease of the central nervous system,” she says, when we visit her at her apartment in Vredehoek. “Essentially, it’s when the communication within your brain, as well as between your brain and body, is somewhat disrupted. That, I think, would be the easiest and simplest way to describe it.” 

What’s not immediately obvious to photographer Rudi Geyser and myself is how Genna, in her wheelchair, living on the ninth floor of her apartment building, manages to get around. “This building is more accessible than most,” she tells us, adding that she knows people with disabilities who struggle to find suitable accommodation, and are faced with having to negotiate staircases on the daily because the buildings they live in have no lifts.

She emphasises that accessibility is a big issue in general. “It's something that I had thought about before, but once I was in a wheelchair it became startlingly apparent. A lot of places that should be accessible for differently-abled people aren’t. Some educational and institutional spaces are still not always completely accessible to those who need to use them, and that can be really disheartening. Education is a right and all disabled students should have access to it, like everyone else. But within these spaces there isn’t always a complete attempt to make education accessible.”

For genderqueer artist Dean Hutton, being dead-named and misgendered are triggers they have to face every day. In case you are not familiar with what it means to be genderqueer, “it’s not who you f***. It’s your gender identity, and usually, it is somebody that identifies outside or between the binary,” Dean explains.

Dean’s name is self-given. Having not yet found time to change it on their identity document, being misgendered – people deciding on their behalf whether they are male or female – is a persistent issue. In one instance, because of their appearance, Dean was confronted by a woman in a public toilet who had decided that Dean should not be using a cubicle in a unisex public toilet, but should rather use a urinal because she, a woman, should be given priority. 

This is perhaps okay in a situation were she was addressing a male person, but in this case she was speaking to someone who doesn’t identify as either male of female. It matters not what Dean has between their legs – the fact is, in this situation, genderqueer as a gender identity is something that many of us have trouble understanding. We want people to fit neatly in either male or female boxes, and are often not conscious of how this affects those that don’t fit.

“People don’t allow us to exist. We are invisible to them. We are invisible to officialdom. We may, on paper, have the right to exist, but this world does not want us because we are difficult bureaucratically. Just occupying space is a constant battle.”

Similarly, women find occupying space problematic. What with the cat-calling and sometimes straight up physical abuse at the hands of men who seem to have this strange idea that it’s okay to grab a woman’s butt or breasts. “My observation is that, as a woman, you’re either invisible, or hyper-visible. There’s no in-between,” says Didintle Ntsie, an independent project manager who has in the past had to leave two jobs as a result of feeling unsafe in the workplace.

“Society wants women to only be f***able, cute, pretty, polite, cook, and shut up. As soon as you start expressing anything outside of that construct you’re met with ‘Why are you overreacting?’, ‘Why are you screaming?’, ‘You’re being emotional,’ ‘You’re being dramatic,’  ‘Such a drama queen’.”

Kyla Phil finds that as she's a woman of colour, people tend to think it’s okay to touch her afro. “You wouldn’t dare touch a man’s hair without his permission, but because I’m a woman people think it’s okay,” she says.

As a filmmaker, Kyla is currently preoccupied with identity, and this is what she wants her work to be about. “I navigate a lot of different levels of identity. I’m mixed race, but also culture-identifying as coloured, as well as understanding that I’m a black person. It’s a difficult navigation because it’s to do with your self-esteem and how you perceive yourself, but a lot of it is about other people’s perceptions.”

Kyla says she finds representations of people of colour (PoC) in media problematic and lacking of the nuanced experience of being a PoC.

“There’s this narrative that gets presented around coloured people specifically, which I find so basic. In fact, coloured culture is such a nuanced experience and conversation. Yet our main access to that is through an Ian Gabriel lens or David Kramer show, and of course they miss all those nuances because they are white men, and they don’t fundamentally get it.”

“The navigation of identity gets the toughest in my work environment and in terms of what it is I want to be creating and making. What are the limitations around that, and the limitations around getting my voice out there, and the ease with which other people can talk about my experience? I’m really struggling with that at the moment.”

Within all of this my subjects still acknowledge their own privilege. Kyla recognises her “light skin privilege” – colourism is a thing for PoCs because the lighter you are the closer you are to white. The perception being that whiteness is seen universally as a benchmark for beauty. Dean acknowledges that their white skin means they can often escape the violence faced by black trans people and masculine-identifying lesbian women, for instance. Genna acknowledges that because of her privilege she has access to better healthcare, for one. “Not everybody who needs a wheelchair to move through spaces has access to one. As I understand it, to even be diagnosed with MS you need to have access to often quite expensive medical resources, like being able to consult a neurologist and then have an MRI scan,” she says.

This recognition of privilege, in spite of the situation that our subjects find themselves in, is heartening. Which begs the question, why is it that most of us don't do the same? 

Is it really too much to consider how calling Dean “him” or “her” when they in fact identify as neither, will affect them? Is it too much to consider how you would feel if, like Kyla, your hair was seen by some as a sort of exotic object? Is it difficult to take into account that, as a man, the way in which you approach a woman is not always comfortable for her? 

Even though I pose these questions, I know that I too am not perfect. No one is. I still dead-name gender queer people, not because I want to, but because I’ve been socialised to think along binary lines. And I’ve caught myself thinking “WTF?” when in a rush and a differently-abled person is blocking my path. While I consider myself an ally to women, I’m pretty sure I will never understand what it’s actually like to be a woman.

I suppose what I’m saying is this: ask questions, get to know people better, and in the process you’ll become better yourself. At the end of the day, I truly believe that that is what matters for those who have been marginalised. It’s not about hand-outs or washing our hands of people who are different to us, but reaching out and touching hands that might look different to ours. Let's put our hands up for human rights.