#FemmeInPublic Celebrates Gender Non-conforming Expression and Sisterhood

By Maya Acharya


#FemmeInPublic is a public protest and declaration of solidarity among non-binary, trans and queer creatives in Cape Town.

What started as a conversation between U.S performance artist/activits/poet Alok Vaid-Menon, their friend Joshua Allen, and Umlilo and Kieron (two queer femme artists from Joburg), turned into a fully-fledged collaborative project that Alok describes as “transformative.” The shoot was coordinated and directed by fashion maven Gavin Mikey Collins.

“With the recent advent of the ‘transgender tipping point’, representation of trans people in the media continues to be of people who are binary (identify as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’), white and conventionally attractive,” said Alok.

“My work is about creating more representation of gender non-conforming people of colour who have been and continue to be at the front of the movement for gender liberation."

The project was brought to life through photography and videography, and also included workshops and a performance event at Cape Town’s Deuce Bar. In terms of the setting for the shoot, 'kwaai diva' artist and one of the main collaborators of the project, Umlilo, attests that Cape Town is far more accepting of queer people than most cities in South Africa.

“It is a city of diversity, tourism and was once the gay capital of South Africa. It's also a city that is polarising in its race relations and class system, so there is quite a lot of tension between people of colour and the affluent white population. In many ways the city perpetuates the inequality in South Africa that began with colonisation and was compounded by Apartheid. It hasn't changed drastically geographically since Apartheid so it was important to disrupt its patriarchal and colonial gaze."

Aside from challenging heteronormative, colonial ideals, the focus of the project was very much centred around solidarity. 

“There is often not as much solidarity between queer people as we would like because we are taught to compete with each other and use our differences as a crutch and point of contention instead of celebrating it, “ Umlilo explains.  

“This project was important because we not only formed a sisterhood and bond in our differences as non-conforming identities but also celebrated our collective struggles. A lot of trans, non-binary queer people share a rejection that is unknown to cis-gendered heterosexual people and we internalise the hurt and pain we have felt from this societal rejection. We could either remain hurt and bitter about it or celebrate who we are and share that with the world. There is so much power in pride. Celebration is a far more positive way to acknowledge difference than advocating respect. We do not need validation from the public, we validate ourselves through this kind of celebration.”

FemmeInPublic describes itself as a conversation piece, and being public inevitably means being exposed to interactions with other people.  On the experience of shooting while walking through the streets of Cape Town, Umlilo highlights the celebratory nature of the protest, but also some of the negative reactions from people on the streets.

“Some people celebrated with us taking photos and were receptive to what we were doing. Others asked questions about what we were doing while some mocked us, called us names, whistled and reacted in the same misogynistic way they react to other feminine bodies walking the streets.”

Unacceptably, street violence and margianlisation continue to affect non-binary or gender non-conforming people all over the world. As Umlilo points out, visibility tends to come hand in hand with hostility. Another important aspect that contributes to the violence against trans and queer people is the myth that their identities are motivated by desire and sex, an incredibly harmful narrative.

“We dress up for ourselves and not for anybody else's entertainment, we are sexual beings but no more than the average human being. Our bodies are not there to be consumed by mass media, the public and cis-gendered heterosexuals.”

When asked how a focus on femme solidarity allows a broadening of the way in which gender non-conforming identities exist in the face of marginalisation and violence, Umlilo emphasises the power of mobilising and standing together.

 “When we are alone, we are far more vulnerable, but when we are with our sisters, we form an unshakable army and power in numbers. I think the project can hopefully inspire trans, non-binary and gender non-conformist queers to seek out and find people who are like them and join forces. Safety is a huge issue when you are trans, feminine, non-binary, queer and especially if you are a person of colour. There are not a lot of safe spaces for us and because of the risk that comes with visibility, we cannot disrupt certain spaces dedicated to heteronormative practices and people. It is up to us to also stand tall and claim those spaces as ours too, or create safe spaces.” 

Alok Vaid-Menon
Joshua Allen
Kieron Jina
Sandiso ‘Sandi Blouse’ Ngubani
Githan Coopoo
Vuyisani Bisholo
Quaid “Queezy” Heneke

Creative Director
Gavin Mikey Colins

Photography and videography
Jabu Newman

Alexis ‘Shakalulu’ Strimenos
Charles Mackenzie
Alex Hopkins (Loure Group)
Miguel Vanas