Wits drops Mr‚ Ms and Mrs titles

19 July 2018 - 12:57 By Prega Govender
Wits said that while students could elect how to be addressed within the university community‚ it could not change a student's title on any legal documentation like certificates.
Wits said that while students could elect how to be addressed within the university community‚ it could not change a student's title on any legal documentation like certificates.
Image: Supplied/Wits Plus

The University of the Witwatersrand has taken a decision not to use titles such as Mr‚ Ms or Mrs to reflect a student's designation in university correspondence and on its student systems.

It said in a communique that the decision affirmed those who were transgender‚ non-binary or gender non-conforming who wished to hold a title that affirmed their identity.

"The university realises that it is invalidating and distressing for a person who‚ for example‚ was assigned female at birth but identifies as male to be constantly addressed by a non-affirming title in university correspondence and systems."

According to the statement‚ people who were transgender or non-binary increasingly opted to use the gender-neutral title "Mx" which is legally recognised in many countries across the world.

But Wits said that while students could elect how to be addressed within the university community‚ it could not change a student's title on any legal documentation like certificates.

"This is because the university is obliged to obey the terms of the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act of 2003 which stipulates that a sex description can only be altered by an order from the director-general of Home Affairs."

It said that the institution "opposes all public and private discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression".

The decision‚ which was taken following a proposal to the registrar's office‚ has been widely welcomed by the university community.

Tish Lumos‚ the programme co-ordinator for sexual orientation and gender identity advocacy at the Wits Transformation and Employment Equity Office‚ said there was an institutional culture in places of higher education that can be very isolating for people who were transgender‚ gender queer and non-binary.

"Administrative processes like addressing somebody by a particular name or title are intrinsically affirming for people who are transgender or gender non-conforming or gender queer. It makes you part of the university culture if you feel you are visibly appreciated and respected."

Said Lumos: "We want people in our university community to feel safe‚ supported and ultimately respected. As a transgender person myself‚ it means a lot being in a space which is welcoming."

Bonita Meyersfeld‚ an associate professor of law at Wits‚ said that the initiative was "the most wonderful moment for true equality across a multitude of spectrums at Wits".

"It's a triumph for an understanding of the diversity of gender identity‚ sexual orientation and the right to be respected for whomever you are."

Warren Makoga‚ secretary of the Students Representative Council at Wits‚ also welcomed the move "because we are in a university that is cosmopolitan and it should be a free space for all".

"Over the past four years‚ there has been conversation with the LGBT community [lesbian‚ gay‚ bisexual and transgender] and the steps taken by the university has been the most progressive thus far."

Javu Baloyi‚ spokesman for the Commission for Gender Equality‚ said Wits was embracing a critical question on gender identity.

"It is a welcome move where the rights of people are being respected and safeguarded. It is an affirmation of the rights of individuals. It is also in line with the Constitution that says no person should be discriminated against due to their sexual orientation."  

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