Online Guide

Zanele Muholi: Glossary

Black and white photo of the artist holding a mirror

Zazi II, ISGM, Boston, 2019

The terms included in this glossary are culturally complex and nuanced. Whilst the co-authors and editors of this text have attempted to reflect this, it is worth noting that the interpretations offered here are not definitive, as the meanings of many of the terms herein are deeply subjective and are consistently contested, debated and re-evaluated.


Denotes the widespread system of prejudice and marginalisation targeting individuals with disabilities, including differences in mental, cognitive, emotional, and/or physical abilities, through attitudes, actions, or institutional practices.


An individual who actively supports the social movements and rights of LGBTQIA+ and other marginalised identities, but who does not identify as LGBTQIA+ or as a member of said marginalised groups.


A former policy/oppressive system that was officially implemented in South Africa from 1948 until 1994, to enforce racial segregation and political, economic and social discrimination against people of colour or anyone who was not classified as white. The word ‘apartheid’ is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘apartness’. The term has also been used to refer to global forms of institutionalised/systemic racial and socio-economic oppression that is still prevalent in societies across the world.


Refers to an individual whose gender expression encompasses both masculine and feminine characteristics or lies somewhere between masculinity and femininity. An androgynous person.


An umbrella term used to describe those with a variation of romantic and/or sexual attraction, including a lack of attraction. The term can also describe people who are emotionally, psychologically and intellectually attracted to people, or where their attraction is not limited to physical sexual expression.


Within the dominant culture informed by Western scientific models that classify gender and sex as binary, gender and sex are commonly assigned at birth based on external biological sex characteristics (genitalia) and reproductive functions. A vulva-bearing child is typically assigned female at birth (commonly shortened to ‘AFAB’), while a penisbearing child is typically assigned male at birth (commonly shortened to ‘AMAB’). AFAB and AMAB are terms commonly used by transgender, gender-non-conforming and non-binary people to demonstrate that the sex and/or gender one was assigned at birth may not necessarily match one’s true gender identity.

Ball Culture

Vogue balls were popular in the USA during the 80s and have recently become popular in queer communities internationally. They were celebratory and political spaces where gay, lesbian and transgender people of colour could gather. It is a space where many play with gender expressions. Houses (chosen families who live together and support each other) would ‘walk’ (compete) in categories with each other, simultaneously celebrating and satirising gender, class and other social categories that could be considered performative. There have recently been a number of balls held in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Notable examples of this would be the House of le Cap and Vogue Nights Jozi (VNJ Ball) who have hosted various Balls as part of the arts, dance and queer night scenes.


An umbrella term used to describe a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards more than one gender. Bisexual people may describe themselves using one or more of a variety of terms, including (but not limited to) pansexual and queer.


A structural (racialised) position influenced by colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade. It represents a sense of belonging to a community forged in response to historical systems, fostering a shared identity spanning the African continent and its diaspora. Capitalised when used to describe someone’s ethnicity or culture, unless the individual or group self-identifies otherwise.

Black Lesbian Feminism

A political identity, movement and school of thought that incorporates perspectives, experiences and politics around race, gender, class and sexual orientation, and surfaces the inextricable links between them.

Body Image

This encompasses an individual’s emotions, behaviours, and thoughts concerning their physical appearance. Attitudes towards one’s own body and bodies in general are shaped by our communities, families, cultures, media, and our own perceptions.


A term used in queer culture to describe someone who often (but not always) expresses themselves in a typically masculine way. This term should not be used to describe someone unless they expressly identify as such.


A term used to describe someone whose gender identity matches the sex and gender they were assigned at birth.

Civil Union

Also known as a civil partnership, a civil union is a legally recognised arrangement in South Africa which grants most or all of the rights, responsibilities and legal consequences of a marriage except the title itself. Civil unions were created primarily to provide recognition in law for same-sex couples and partnerships. While heterosexual couples have the option to marry either through civil marriage or civil union contracts in South Africa, same-sex couples are limited to entering civil union contracts for marriage.

Coming Out

Coming out refers to the voluntary disclosure of one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity to others. This process is unique for each individual. The concept of “coming out” has expanded to include divulging other potentially stigmatised personal details. Associated terms include: “Being out” which means freely disclosing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and “Outing”, a term used for making public the sexual orientation or gender identity of another who may prefer to keep this information secret. Choosing not to disclose one’s LGBTQIA+ identity publicly is sometimes described as being “in the closet” or “closeted”.

‘Corrective Rape’

A term used to describe a hate crime in which a person is raped because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The intended consequence of such acts is to enforce heterosexuality and gender conformity.


A deadname is the name that a transgender or nonbinary individual has abandoned and no longer identifies with, typically the name assigned at birth. When someone refers to this name, whether intentionally or not, it is termed deadnaming. Deadnaming is widely viewed as offensive and emotionally harmful.

Drag/Drag King/Drag Queen

Drag involves the theatrical portrayal of one or multiple genders by dressing in clothing typically associated with a different gender or in a manner different from how one would usually dress. Drag queens perform in attire typically considered feminine, while drag kings perform in attire typically considered masculine. Drag serves as a form of gender expression and does not necessarily align with an individual’s gender identity. Those who participate in drag may or may not identify as transgender; they may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, or some other sexual orientation.


A term widely used by queer and trans people to identify other queer and trans people. Also known as ‘chosen family’.


A term used in LGBTQIA+ culture to describe someone who often (but not always) expresses themselves in a typically feminine way. This term should not be used to describe someone unless they expressly identify as such.


A term used to refer to an individual who identifies as a man, trans person or nonbinary person who tends to have a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards men. The term can also be used more broadly and colloquially to describe a same-sex or queer orientation.


A type of language used in South African communities consisting of colloquial or slang words. Often a name such as ‘Betty’ or ‘Delores’ was used to stand in for something else such as ‘club’ or ‘police’. It originated during apartheid in South Africa within Coloured (In South Africa, the term ‘Coloured’ refers to a diverse group of people, largely descended from the indigenous Khoi and San, and persons from Africa and Asia enslaved at the Cape, with some European ancestry. However, the term ‘Coloured’ is contested - embraced by some and rejected by others.) working class LGQBTQIA+ communities. Gayle allowed communities to communicate safely in predominantly heterosexual spaces and organise politically. It also allowed people to live their lives more freely at a time when homosexuality was a criminal act in South Africa.


A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or gender identity beyond the gender binary. Fundamentally different from the sex one is assigned at birth, gender can encompass gender identity (a person’s sense of their own gender) and gender expression (how a person outwardly expresses their gender).

Gender Affirming

A broad term encompassing actions, language, medical care, and more, that affirms someone’s gender identity or expression. For example, surgery that alters someone’s appearance to align with their gender identity is referred to as gender-affirming surgery.

Gender Binary

The system of dividing gender into two distinct categories – man and woman – thus excluding non-binary and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Gender Dysphoria

Used to describe a person’s discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity.

Gender Neutral

Describes anything that is not associated with a specific gender. For instance, gender-neutral language avoids the use of binary male or female terms, while gender-neutral restrooms are accessible for individuals of any gender identity or expression.

Gender Non-conforming/Non-conformity

A person who does not conform to the binary gender categories that society prescribes (man and woman) through their gender identity/expression.

Hate Crime

Any incident that may or may not constitute a criminal offence, perceived as being motivated by prejudice or hate. The perpetrators seek to demean and dehumanise their victims, whom they consider different from them based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, health status, nationality, social origin, religious convictions, culture, language or other characteristics.


A socio-political system that, predicated on the gender binary, upholds heterosexuality as the norm or default sexual orientation. Heteronormativity encompasses a belief that people fall into distinct and ‘complementary’ genders (men and women) with natural roles in life. It assumes that sexual, romantic and marital relations are most fitting between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman, positioning all other sexual orientations as ‘deviations’.


A form of LGBTQIA+ advocacy that frames LGBTQIA+ rights in nationalistic terms that privilege North American and European expressions over those of the Middle East and the Global South, particularly Africa. Homonationalism sees the conceptual realignment of LGBTQIA+ activism to fit the goals and ideologies of both neoliberalism and the far right in order to justify racist, classist, Islamophobic and xenophobic perspectives. This framing is based on prejudices that migrant people are supposedly homophobic, and that western society is egalitarian.


The fear or dislike of someone based on prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views about LGBTQIA+ people.


A person who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards someone of the same gender. ‘Homosexual’ is often considered a more medical term. The terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ are now more generally used.


Emerging from the traditions of critical race theory, womanism and Black feminist thought, intersectionality encompasses the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. The term was formalised by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in a discussion around Black women’s employment in the US. Intersectionality rejects the notion of universal experiences of womanhood in favour of a more holistic assessment of how one’s race, class, ethnicity, age, ability, sexuality, nationality and religion can impact one’s experience of womanhood or gender, but also how these social inequalities intertwine with and shape one another.


A term used to describe a person who may have biological attributes that do not fit with societal assumptions about what constitutes ‘male’ or ‘female’. These biological variations may manifest in different ways and at different stages throughout an individual’s life. Being intersex relates to biological sex characteristics and is distinct from a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.


An acronym standing for Intimate Partner Violence. Also referred to as spousal or domestic violence, is a prevalent form of gender-based violence (GBV). Intimate partner violence encompasses actions within a close relationship that result in physical, sexual, or psychological harm. This includes physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and controlling behaviours. This definition covers violence from both current and former spouses or partners.


A type of language used amongst the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa, mostly among the Nguni people.


A slur or derogatory isiZulu term used in vernacular language to refer to a person who is from the LGBTQIA+ community in the Southern African context. Translated into English, the term means a person who is born with both male and female ‘parts’.


A term used to refer to a woman, trans person or non-binary person who tends to have a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards women or non-binary femmes.


An acronym standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual. This is not an exhaustive list, as denoted by the inclusion of the plus symbol, which nods to the varying sexual orientations and gender identities that exist around the world.

LGBTQIA+ Lived Name

A name, typically a first name, that an individual uses which may differ from their legal name. Several factors contribute to why someone may adopt a lived name. For some transgender and non-binary individuals, using a lived name serves to affirm their gender identity. “Preferred name” has also been used; however, it has been largely replaced by lived name. “Preferred name” suggests that using someone’s lived name is optional, which can lead to deadnaming.


Also known as lobolo, lobola is a customary practice of marriage whereby the bridegroom’s family and kin transfer certain goods to the bride’s family in order to validate a customary marriage. Historically this was in the form of cattle, but today monetary payment is preferred, depending on the bride’s family. This is a practice used in South Africa as well as various other places, and a central aspect of the practice is to build a social and economic safety net between the families.


Brief and subtle behaviours, whether deliberate or unintentional, that convey hostile, derogatory, or negative messages about marginalised identities. These actions inflict harm by invalidating the identity of the marginalised individual and may perpetuate stereotypes. Examples of microaggressions include someone being told that “they don’t look like a lesbian” or a person who is not white being told they speak “good English”.


This involves assigning an incorrect gender to someone that does not align with their gender identity. This can happen when using pronouns, gendered language (e.g., “Hello ladies!” or “Hey guys”) or making assumptions about people’s gender without knowing how they identify (e.g., “Since we’re all women in this room, we understand...”).


An acronym standing for men who have sex with men. MSM may or may not identify as gay, queer or bisexual.


A practice of extrajudicial torture and execution whereby a burning rubber tyre is forced around a person’s neck. Under apartheid, necklacing was sometimes used within the Black community to punish those who were perceived to have collaborated with the apartheid government.


An umbrella term for people whose gender identity does not sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (also often referred to as genderqueer). Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely.


Refers to an individual’s attraction or lack thereof to others. An individual’s orientation can be fluid, and people use various labels to express their orientation. Some, though not all, forms of attraction or orientation include romantic, sexual, sensual, aesthetic, intellectual, and platonic.


An umbrella term for people whose gender identity does not sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (also often referred to as genderqueer). Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely.


When an LGBTQIA+ person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is disclosed without their consent.


A term that refers to a person whose romantic and/or sexual attraction towards others is not limited by sex or gender.

Passbook (dompas)/Reference book

An identification book or document that every person of colour or anyone who was not classified as white had to carry under the pass laws of apartheid. The book was made up of two parts. One part had a laminated identity card that featured the name of the bearer, their ethnic affiliation, the date the card was issued, the signature of an official and a black and white portrait photograph. The other part included five sections which listed information on permissions to enter urban areas, record of required medical examinations, names and addresses of employers, work status and receipts for tax payments. Colloquially, among the Black South African population, these passes were often referred to derogatorily as the dompas, an Afrikaans term literally meaning ’dumb’/’stupid pass’.


This occurs when a transgender individual is perceived as, or “passes” as, a cisgender man or woman. This concept is often associated with privilege, but it can also impose unrealistic or unwanted expectations on transgender and nonbinary individuals to conform to cisnormativity. Passing may also involve gay, lesbian, or queer individuals being mistaken for being straight. Historically, passing was often necessary as a form of safety for LGBTQIA+ individuals. Even today, passing continues to serve as a survival tactic in many African nations where homophobia remains pervasive. In instances where individuals are unable to “pass” as cisgender men or women, they often face hate crimes, and in extreme cases, murder.


A social hierarchy that privileges and prioritises men over women and other gender identities.

Pencil Test

A racist, dehumanising test that was devised to assist authorities in racial classification under apartheid. When officials were unsure if a person should be classified as white or of colour, a pencil would be pushed into their hair. If the pencil fell out, signalling that their hair was straight rather than curly, kinky or coily, the person ‘passed’ and was ‘classified’ as white.

People/Person of Colour (POC)

A term used to denote someone who is not considered white. The term is used to emphasise the common experiences of systemic racism amongst people of colour.

Pink Capitalism/Pink Money/Pink Economy

A term describing a socioeconomic and market trend involving the inclusion of individuals with non-mainstream sexual orientations into the market economy. This phenomenon merges capitalism, market economics, and sexual orientation, wherein individuals are distinguished by their sexual orientation and members of the LGBTQIA+ community—particularly white, middle-class, and urban gay men—are identified as a target market, potential clients, or affluent consumers.

People/Person of Colour (POC)

A term used to denote someone who is not considered white. The term is used to emphasise the common experiences of systemic racism amongst people of colour.


A term with multiple meanings, but that commonly refers to the appropriation of the LGBTQIA+ movement in order to promote some corporate or political agenda. The term is used to describe the practices of entities who market themselves as ‘gay-friendly’ to gain favour with progressives, while simultaneously masking aspects of their practices that are violent and undemocratic.


Words we use to refer to people’s gender in conversation – for example, ‘he’ or ‘she’, or gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’.


Stands for Queer People of Colour, Queer Trans People of Colour, and Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Colour, respectively. These terms are commonly used to discuss the ways in which multiple, intersecting identities can lead to nuanced systems and experiences of oppression.


An umbrella term used by those who reject heteronormativity. Although some people view the word as a slur, it was reclaimed by the queer community, who have embraced it as an empowering and subversive identity.


Refers to the exploration of one’s gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. Some individuals may also use this term to name their identity within the LGBTQIA+ community.

Safe space

An environment that enables all persons, including sexual and gender minorities, to be free to express themselves without fear of discrimination or violation of their rights and dignity. Individual actions and reactions are key in upholding or violating a safe space.


An African healer who specialises in treating people’s spiritual and physical diseases by looking into their past and future and connecting them with the ancestors. Healers believe that they are called by their ancestors to take on this important and respected position in society. Sangoma is a Zulu term.


An acronym that stands for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression. Used by some in a similar way to the umbrella acronym: LGBTQIA+.


Sex is distinct from gender. Sex is assigned to a person at birth on the basis of biological sex characteristics (genitalia) and reproductive functions.


An umbrella term used to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people are binary-identified and others are not.


The steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which they identify. Each person’s transition involves different processes. For some this involves medical intervention or genderaffirming healthcare such as hormone therapy and surgeries (medical transition), but not all trans people want or are able to have this. Transitioning might also involve things such as telling friends and family, dressing differently, changing one’s pronouns (social transition) and changing official documents (legal transition).


A term that characterises the marginalisation of Black trans women and transfeminine people and captures the intersection of transphobia, racism and misogyny. It is used to denote the fact that Black trans women and transfeminine experience a different, racialised form of misogyny that is compounded with transphobia.


A term capturing the interlocking discrimination of transphobia and misogyny. Transmisogyny includes negative attitudes, hate and discrimination toward transgender individuals who fall on the feminine side of the gender spectrum, particularly trans women and transfeminine people.


The fear or dislike of someone based on the fact that they are transgender, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.


People who are born in a country other than the one they immigrate to, lacking documentation that affords legal rights pertaining to residency and/or citizenship. South Africa stands out as one of the few, if not the sole, African country with a significant population of undocumented individuals who frequently migrate to South Africa seeking refuge from the prevalent homophobia in their countries of birth across Africa.

White Supremacy

A racist ideology in which people defined and perceived as white are postioned as superior to and should dominate people of other races, and the practices based on this ideology.


An acronym standing for women who have sex with women. WSW may or may not identify as lesbian, queer or bisexual.


An ethnic group and language of Southern Africa situated within the Nguni people. They have close ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties with the Swazi and Xhosa. The Zulu are South Africa’s largest ethnic group, with an estimated population of 10 million, residing mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Glossary Contributors

Sinazo Chiya, Stevenson

Genevieve Louw, GALA Queer Archive, Johannesburg, South Africa

Bongani Matabane, University of Cape Town

Maggie Matich, Tate Research

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