The queer community is not free from exclusions and the fight for resources.. Class plays as much a role as ideas about femininity and masculinity. Black trans*women from rural areas, who are often poor, face particularly strong discrimination. Therefore, the queer community itself must address its own internalised prejudices, distorted perceptions, and exclusions. A conversation with Seoketsi Mooketsi (Seopowerr).
The interview was conducted by Claudia Simons, Senior Programme Manager in the Africa Division at Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.
Claudia: You are a very powerfully outspoken activist & speaker especially all over social media. What are your
experiences with being so publicly visible?
Seopowerr: In South Africa, when you are open and out there with your identity, and specifically your gender identity, there’s a lot of violence. I do a lot of visibility and “see me” work, but at the same time that work has a tendency of attracting a lot of violence onto my body. So I constantly have to navigate that space whereby I’m wondering: Am I going to be safe? Am I going to come back as a full person as I am right now? Am I going to come back home as a corpse? Because that’s what happens in Southern Africa. When you deliberately speak out and affirm your power, it’s met with a lot of vengeance, violent vengeance against you. So… it’s hard work.
Claudia: So you also experience that within a queer community and with allies or organisations that work in the field of LGBTI rights?
Seopowerr: Absolutely. Exploitation and tokenisation, and expropriation of not only funds and resources, but specifically bodies, continues within our own work. We are those who hold up the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality, yet we are the very same persons who are imposing the violence, and we are internalising violence amongst each other. There is a lot of exclusion in queer spaces. Instead of really explicitly confronting systematic oppression, systematic disorders, and how you continuously become disenfranchised within the space, we’d rather contribute immensely to countering the cultures of violence and discrimination. If you don’t speak a certain language, a certain accent, with a certain tone, specifically English, if you’re not Zulu or Xhosa, you’re not considered smart enough, you’re really demonised as a dumb, illiterate, uneducated person. We still have to fight all of these -isms that come with privilege, personal economy, your race, your age, your gender identity, your sexuality. And there is a lot of classism in queer spaces. Financially, Black trans women continue to be the most disempowered group within the spectrum of LGBTIQ+. Sometimes, activists would take your work and not financially compensate you correctly. But then you cannot even talk about your poverty. There’s a lot of talking about speaking up, but when you literally speak your mind and you speak on the importance of what freedom in real time in real life looks like for a Black rural and poor Southern African trans woman, then you are told that you’re too much. You cannot really unpack and bring the personalised political to the space. You’re bringing too much onto the plate. I’m being the most marginalised within our own queer, trans, non-binary Southern African community. We are doing the hard work. But there’s a lot of invisibilising culture that continues to take place.
Claudia: So there is a prefixed idea of what womanhood looks like, what queerness looks like, how problems should be framed, etc.…
Seopowerr: Yes. Within the community and among allies. Allies are very problematic in that respect because they claim to understand your language, but when you really speak the language that is critical and ground force, when you really bring all that into the conversation, you are then pushed out of the space. In South Africa we live in a white monopoly capital system. Within that there’s also a white monopoly ally system, whereby allies feel that their work is more important than yours, and their interpretations of queerness, of womanhood, etc., are more relevant. The people who are constantly telling us to do the work are the very same ones who are policing and becoming moralist within that work. It is a bit of a contradiction.
But I’m not just representing myself here. I’m representing the most marginalised, underprivileged community that is continuously disempowered by the cis hetero-normative system. But the system that we are fighting is the very same system that people are now using against me. So where can I really become myself authentically and in fullness without being policed even by my own people?
Claudia: Given all this, what is feminism for you?
Seopowerr: Feminism is a life model for me. It’s not a construct, or a concept. It’s life, it’s how I navigate it. It’s also a recentralisation of myself. Most spaces in the African context seldom speak of the reality of Black women, the reality of Black trans* women specifically. But feminism is also a fight of survival when I realise that even in so-called feminist spaces, my reality as a person has no place. People want to prove who is more feminist, less feminist – this whole competitive culture. That is not feminism for me. It’s not a group of people, it’s not a construct or a concept note, it’s not people claiming authority over identities. It’s me. I am feminism. Feminism is life. And thereby I mean that feminism is 360 degrees, it’s inclusive, it’s trans* inclusive, and it includes people like my grandmother, who started her day at 4 am to make sure that our needs as children were met.
Claudia: And is your idea of activism also related to that?
Seopowerr: Activism definitely mirrors my feminism, and it’s part of feminism and a way of life. But a lot of people have preconceived ideas of what feminist activism is supposed to look like and that pretty much reflects general normativity in our society: how you speak, how you engage with people, what you write on paper. And often that form of activism exposes you to a lot of violence. People often think activism saved me, but actually it put me in a lot of danger. What saves me is my own feminism as a way of life.
When I say feminism is a way of life, I mean believing that you are equal to everyone does not matter to your identity or sexuality, or my grandmother telling me I am equal – all that is feminism. And then for me, knowing that I am equal and acting on that basis becomes a practice, but it’s not what most people frame as activism. That is not something that you are taught how to do in some white institution.
So I needed to find ways of unlearning and relearning what feminism and activism look like without reading about it from the influence of white women or Black and white cis women. I needed to re-imagine feminism as a way of healing, a tool of taking up space for myself, not for anyone else. Feminism was able to protect me because I’m able to still be in the background and still contribute to the space without really being exposed, without putting my body forward as a token of vulnerability, as a token of exploitation, which is always the case when you are an activist who represents the most marginalised community. So I really wish I was not an activist. I really wish I was just a feminist.
Claudia: There are probably a lot of people who would want to push you back into activism… a pre-conceived version of activism…
Seopowerr: People expect me to put my body on the front line. If your activism is not you putting your body on the line, then it’s not activism, it becomes questionable. It’s as if you are a piece of meat. They see a beautiful crispy chicken. And then they start nibbling on it until you’re only left with this bone. And even then, they still nibble on you. But what they should be doing, they should be taking this meat and preserving it for generations to come. By that I mean instead of wanting you to put your body on the line and go to Facebook and write a paper or submit an abstract of your life, we should all really be sitting down and confronting our own internalised biases and exclusions. We should be opening up doors, opening up spaces for Black rural and poor trans women, employing folks that will then be able to go to health care facilities, really understanding and changing the dire situation in which Black rural trans women are situated and changing that. We should not be asking me and people I represent to put our bodies on the front line of a preconceived idea of feminist fighting.
I am no longer going to be anyone’s candle, because I’m tired of being someone’s candle, because at the end of the day I’m the one that is diminished. I’m the one that is done. I’m the one that becomes that bone, that is chewed and spit out on the ground.
So my activism now is documenting myself and being selfishly deliberate about my documentation – understanding that my body is revolutionary beyond measure, beyond history, beyond man, beyond woman. And not just giving my work to anyone hoping that they’ll come back to save me. Understanding that I am here to save me and that saving me is a political act. Every breath that I take is a political act.
Claudia: Activism is so often imagined as something outgoing that is about other people. It’s not this just being yourself – existence is not enough even when your sheer existence is already disturbing the system.
Seopowerr: Understanding that I don’t have to really put on a wig to be an activist, just as I don’t have to put on lashes to identify as a woman is liberating. I’m deliberately learning that it’s OK to present as what the world would present as a cis man on Monday, to present as a cis woman on Wednesday, and a trans woman on Friday. We were told to know where to draw the line, but we were never taught to know when not to draw the line. If I choose to live my life without my wig, even if I don’t speak my native language, I still identify within the perimeters of me as a Black rural trans woman. Even if I don’t wear my lipstick I’m still trans. Me choosing to live my life without my lashes, without my brows, without a flourishing vibe going on, that also means activism. Because someone is going to be able to see me in the taxi rank or in the street and say that “I’m able to relate with that, because that is authenticity, that is activism.” If that activism becomes policed and understood from a very hetero-normalised, cis patriarchal understanding of life, that’s fucked up.
Claudia: Your words remind me of what I learnt from the life of Marsha P. Johnson, who basically said, “Look, I can go out with a dress and I can go out with my jeans and my pullover and I’m still the same person.” Are there certain people such as Marsha, famous people, or people you know personally who inspired you in your work?
Seopowerr: Marsha P. Johnson is an amazing trans activist who threw the first brick at the Stonewall uprising and fucked shit up and said, “Enough is enough.” I am there. I am a young Marsha P. Johnson, just more erased from the space because of my Africanness. I’m a young Audre Lorde, I’m a young bell hooks, I’m a young Mama Madikizela, Winnie Madikizela. I’m a young Dr Beverley Ditsie. Those people have saved me. They continue to save me. And even those ones that I don’t mention, I still give thanks to, because we can already remember all the folks that have really contributed to our upbringing and our becoming.
Claudia: How do you deal with all the violence you describe, from society at large, but also within queer communities, this blatant unfairness and injustice that is all around you?
Seopowerr: I don’t have the choice but to be powerful. I understand that I don’t have the privilege that other people have. I need to be my own information base and I need to seek validation from within. I constantly need to understand that it’s important for me to craft and draft myself into the books of herstory and theystory. Whatever that looks like, whatever that means, I need to do it. Do it deliberately. This understanding gives me power. Understanding that my breath, my heart is valid, and that my memory shall not be wiped out. Understanding that I am radical, my entire existence is revolutionary. Sometimes I really don’t know where it stems from, where the power stems from, but understanding that I am powerful and acknowledging the privilege that I am able to share with the world that power. For me it’s also important to not chose to dwell within hate, within negative energy. Choosing to leave the table, the yard, the space when it’s suffocating. Choosing myself is what really has saved me. And acknowledging I have selective privilege, I can reach people, I can be in certain spaces. I am also teaching folks that have been systematically uneducated, unemployed, disfavoured by the system that they are roses amongst thorns, that every day is a fighting day, but it does get better, and that it’s OK not to be OK. I always tell my friends that. Go after yourselves. Challenge yourselves. Understand your wealth. Understand that you’re rich. Understand that you are rich not in formation of financial richness, but that you, your body, is wealth.