Your time at university is meant to challenge you, push you and, perhaps, even change you, hopefully for the better. For Velile Vilane, his time as a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town (UCT) marked momentous change for the young engineer; it included his coming into being.
When Velile began his decade-long experience as an undergraduate at UCT, he registered as Miss Velile Vilane. When he steps into the Sarah Baartman Hall on Thursday, 12 December 2019, he does so as Mr Vilane. And when the pomp and ceremony are over, he will leave the university as Dr Vilane.
The PhD graduand came into being in the second year of his doctoral journey, the thesis for which sees the design of an alternative manufacturing route for aircraft that is cheaper but maintains the required specifications.
It was at the peak of his PhD research that his dysphoria, the distress some transgender people experience because of the difference between their designated gender and the gender they know they are, became inescapable. He realised that despite his plans to transition after his PhD, his thesis was “not coming out before the other”.
“Dysphoria was just like, ‘I'm having you right now’. And you need to deal … everything else needs to stop,” said Velile.
It had become apparent that the performance needed to make it through each day was taking attention and energy from his PhD.
“So, I had to remove the performance first.”
“Dysphoria was just like, ‘I'm having you right now’.”
But before anyone can call him brave, the graduand makes it clear that it was never about bravery but rather a choice between life or death. Statistics show that more than half of trans people attempt suicide and Velile was adamant he did not want to die.
“I had to choose … at least I am going to be alive even though I may lose other things,” he said of his decision.
Making that decision took almost three decades of confusion, fear, anxiety and fighting oppression and oppressive systems.
Velile grew up on a farm in Swaziland, the second youngest of four children. He stayed there until he completed his O-levels, the equivalent of South Africa’s National Senior Certificate or Grade 12.
From a very young age, he had a greater affinity for the stereotypical male roles, herding cattle and making blocks to build a house instead of staying in the kitchen, cooking with the other girls. He found himself constantly at odds with what was expected of him and what he was told should come naturally to him, such as wearing dresses. Eventually, he was labelled “rebellious”, a rule breaker.
Despite this, he has fond memories of the fishing trips he had with his father. While his father didn’t relate to his second-youngest as a son because he didn’t yet know what was going on – and neither did Velile at the time – their relationship was one the graduand holds dear.
Velile was also an avid reader, a love that stemmed partly from feeling isolated from the girls his age who were forming cliques and taking an interest in boys. The reading fed into an almost insatiable curiosity which eventually led Velile, at age 15, to decide that he would pursue a PhD.
It seemed the obvious choice for an inquisitive mind. But it also meshed with a consciousness of a widening gap between what society expected from him and who he was.
Activism and access
When it came time for his undergraduate studies, Velile chose UCT and enrolled for a BSc, but soon discovered that his passion was in engineering where the problems and solutions were physical, practical, tangible.
Today, his inclination to problem-solve finds expression beyond the academy. He is active in many LGBTI+ spaces such as South Africa’s Gender DynamiX and Swaziland’s TransSwazi.
One of the fights he may soon undertake is with the Swazi government which does not recognise transgender individuals. As such, he is struggling to obtain a new identity document reflecting his coming into being as a man. Should the Swazi government refuse him, Velile sees court action as the only other option.
It would certainly not be his first fight for justice nor his first encounter with navigating oppressive systems and structures.
“For you, the day does not only involve what everyone else is doing between eight to five; we need to be strategically navigating toilets.”
One of the many traumatic experiences Velile encountered as a trans person at UCT was when and where to use the toilets.
The greatest challenge came just before he “transitioned”. When he’d try to use female bathrooms, female students would often scream. The male toilets were off limits because of the risk of violence, while accessing the disabled toilets often required making a trip from the Menzies Building to the ones near the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library.
It eventually necessitated a “schedule”. Velile found a time to use the toilets when they were as empty as possible – which usually meant going during class time.
“For [us], the day does not only involve what everyone else is doing between eight to five; we need to be strategically navigating toilets,” he said.
The graduand and the rest of the trans community and their allies fought for access to toilets at UCT and now gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming available on campus.
Support and services
His student card was another source of trauma. As a PhD candidate, Velile would often be on campus in the early hours of the morning. Campus Protection Service officers, as is their duty, would request student identification but this presented a unique problem as his student card still identified him as “Miss Velile Vilane”. Similar encounters were had with administrators.
Fortunately, thanks to the persistence of the trans community at UCT – including Velile – and allies, the university has since amended its policy to enable students to change and choose their gender pronouns.
But what was probably the greatest challenge for Velile as a trans person at UCT was the lack of services and information. Faced with confusion and escalating dysphoria, he was at a loss as to where to go for help. UCT’s Student Wellness Service was not equipped for trans people and couldn’t provide him with the information he so desperately needed.
Thankfully, Velile was surrounded by supportive members of the LGBTI+ community who directed him to the Triangle Project. There, in 2015, he began to understand and make sense of the dysphoria, but he still needed time to self-reflect before undergoing hormone treatment and coming into being.
While his quality of life and happiness have improved significantly since then, the process could have been easier if the university had been better equipped, he said, for instance in providing endocrine hormones or a direct channel for students to access these hormones and a therapist who understands the struggles of trans people.
‘I have come into being’
Reflecting on his coming into being, Velile is now able to smile. He fits perfectly into his clothes, he no longer has to “perform” when he leaves the house and he can finally face himself in the mirror.
“You see yourself … your quality of life improves, you can smile and genuinely be happy.”
He is full of praise for his family’s support. While they may not have understood all of it, they supported him throughout. He is also grateful to the Centre for Materials Engineering in which he undertook his PhD while he was coming into being. In particular, Velile thanks his “very good” supervisor Professor Robert Knutsen who managed to secure National Research Foundation funding for him for the duration of his postgraduate studies.
Velile will carry his late father with him in spirit at his graduation on Thursday, 12 December, when he will honour his father’s style through his outfit of choice while his mother and aunt cheer from the audience.
As for his plans, Velile is already settled in at the Nelson Mandela University’s Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy for his postdoctoral fellowship, a continuation of a relationship that was formed during his doctorate.
Academia will always be an appropriate place for his inquisitive mind. But, unlike the confused and uncertain 15-year-old Velile who didnʼt know what the future held, the graduand now knows that he can pursue an academic career and start his own family.
“The thing is, I have come into being. I know what is happening now; I know how to navigate it,” he said.
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