South Africa: A queer quandary: What to call kin

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa.

Moddy, Maddy, Mimi, Momo, Mumdad, Nibi or even the Japanese word for parent, Oya, were some of the gender-neutral options Thandi* and Lerato* had to refer to Chris Verster, their non binary parent. But the girls chose something more organic. 

“They mostly made up their own name. They call me ‘Kiggie’,” Verster laughs. “My partner is a cisgendered female, so she is called ‘Mom’ or ‘Mamma’. But Chris is a bit of a difficult name for kids, so they just started calling me ‘Kig’, which then turned into ‘Kiggie’.”

The British-based queer rights organisation LGBT Foundation defines nonbinary people as those who “identify as either having a gender which is in-between or beyond the two categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as fluctuating between ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or as having no gender, either permanently or some of the time”.

Coined in the 1990s, non binary is a relatively new inclusion in our lexicon. And although the accepted pronouns for non binary people — they, them, their — have been established,it’s something of a challenge when it comes to the creation of familial terms that are gender neutral. These include mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew and grandparents.

In 2017, along with Nobantu Sibeko, Khanyi Mpumlwana established the organisation Find New Words. In consultation with academics, historians, anthropologists, sociologists and citizens, the independent initiative aims to create non derogatory terms for queer people in African languages.

“Because the existing words are largely derogatory, you would often hear people say things like, ‘If I can’t name it in isiZulu, it’s not African’. Even people who aren’t homophobic will use words like ‘isitabane’ simply because there are no other words,” says Mpumlwana.

When asked whether there has been any discussion about finding terms for nonbinary family members, Mpumlwana laughs: “Oh my gosh, you’re right. This is not something we have explored yet.”

Offering some possible terms in isiXhosa, however, Mpumlwana suggests umntana wase khaya (a child from home) — also colloquially used as mntase or mntasekhaya — as a gender-neutral option for sibling. Read more via Mail & Guardian