OPEN LETTER TO VICE-CHANCELLOR, DR MAX PRICE AND THE UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN (UCT) COMMUNITY
Posted: May 29, 2012
Category: Public Statement
We know, based on a survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, that across five
survey years (from 2003 to 2007), more than 80% of the South African population have consistently
expressed the view that homosexual conduct is always wrong. We also know that lesbian, gay and
transgender people continue to be insulted, harassed, raped, and murdered in South Africa. We know
that religious and traditional fundamentalists continue to demand the erasure of sexual orientation
from the equality clause in our Bill of Rights. In this context, the backlash against UCT Pride week is
hardly surprising. In 2010, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people
must still be actively protected and promoted in South Africa. However, in order to do this we need to
know what we are up against. This means moving beyond the limitations of reductionist explanations
which attribute acts of violence (from verbal harassment to murder) against LGBTI, simply to
homophobia (i.e. anti-homosexual sentiment). If we continue to stick to this only partially true
storyline, our responses will remain limited to reforming or punishing individuals seen as the bearers of
homophobic attitudes. The power-base that enables the ongoing discrimination, hatred and violence
experienced by LGBTI people must be unmasked.
This system of power is called, ‘heteronormativity’. It sounds complex, but simply put,
heteronormativity refers to the processes through which social institutions and social policies reinforce
the unquestioned belief that human beings fall into two distinct sex/gender categories: male/man and
female/woman. Associated with these sex/gender categories are gender and sexuality norms that
prescribes what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man, and which institutes
heterosexuality as the only ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ expression of sexuality.
Susan Adams provides one of the simplest, clearest explanation heteronormativity:
What’s expected here is heterosexuality.
Two genders, each sexually attracted to the other. Clear boundaries. No exceptions.
Heteronormativity is so naturalised and embedded in social institutions that its workings are largely
invisible. A higher education institution such as UCT is no exception. While there may be spaces within
UCT where it is resisted and interrupted, Heteronormitivity remains deeply ingrained in the classroom
practices, curricular, research agendas and knowledge production of educational institutions.
Therefore, in spite of events such as pink week on campus, heteronormitivity operates insidiously
against LGBTI students who struggle for visibility and voice. Violence is one of the most direct means
of policing the gender and sexuality boundaries that heteronormitivity puts and keeps in place, and of
punishing those who transgress these boundaries.
UCT’s response to the burning of the pink closet incident cannot then be confined to only investigating
and holding the culprits accountable. In the Cape Times (6 October 2010), the vice-chancellor of UCT,
Dr Max Price is reported as saying: “One would have hoped that the rights of LGBTI are accepted and
one need only celebrate that right, rather than still fight for it. However, it seems there are still people
who do not acknowledge some rights embedded in our constitution, and that we definitely still have a
lot of work to do to in this regard.” For this statement is to have any meaning, UCT needs to call itself
We therefore pose the following questions to UCT:
1. What is UCT doing to interrupt and challenge heteronormitivity in its own institutional practices
2. What is UCT doing to institutionalise a more progressive and transformative sexuality and
gender politics that fundamentally shifts in its teaching practices, curricular, research and the
knowledge it produces and disseminates?
Such questions, of course, must be posed not only to UCT, but to all higher learning institutions in
Higher learning institutions in South Africa need to take deliberate and proactive steps that are based
the understanding that heternormativity does not only oppress and regulate LGBTI people. Rather, it is
a fundamental part of a patriarchal social order and is central to production and perpetuation of power
inequalities between men and women, and between heterosexual people and LGBTI people.
Heteronormitivity creates gender and sexuality norms that constrain everyone. Additionally, such
steps must be informed by an understanding of how gender and sexual identities, power relations and
oppression intersect with other social identities and systems of differentiation and power related to
race, class, nationality and disability.
UCT and other higher learning institutions are meant to be leading sites of knowledge production.
Given this, Triangle Project urges these institutions to take explicit and deliberate action to unmask and
displace heteronormitivity within its own institutional practices and within broader society.
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"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King Jnr