In South Africa, the only words for those who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, non-binary or non-conforming in 9 of the country’s 11 official languages are derogatory or violent.
So on the day known internationally as #ComingOutDay, South Africans are encouraged to come out in support of finding new, positive words in their home languages, as part of the Find New Words initiative.
The initiative was founded in 2017 when, Khanyi Mpumlwana and Nobantu Sibeko, realised how difficult it was to have inclusive, representative and meaningful discourse when the only words that exist, add to the stigma and “othering” of LGBTQQIAP+ communities.
“The existing words, such as istabane or imoffie, are insulting, violent and are based in ostracism and a culture of shaming,” says Mpumlwana.
“In TshiVenda for example, people are labelled as matula/matudzi (bad omen/something unacceptable). So we need to create or reclaim LGBTQQIAP+ identifying words and phrases in South Africa’s languages that are humanising, instead of offensive.”
Earlier this week, the initiative aired a commercial for a fake washing powder calledusing the word istabane. They wanted to gauge if there would be a reaction from the nearly 10 million people who watched it; the only reaction coming from a few members of the LGBTQQIAP+ communities on social media.
“If this was something racist, the whole country would have been up in arms,” says Mpumlwana. “There might be sensitivities around istabane, but using it is not illegal. We want to change that.”
The search to find new words started earlier this year with workshops held across the country with academics, historians, anthropologists, sociologists and communities throughout South Africa to suggest non-offensive replacement terms.
Suggestions included changing verbs into nouns or combining two words together. During one workshop, for example, a group proposed the term Sekgele sa Mookodi for queer, which is derived from the words ‘umbrella’ and ‘rainbow’.
Continues Mpumlwana: “To-date we’ve found over 150 words in 8 of our 11 languages and now want all South Africans to add their new words, or vote for their favourite ones via our website. Once that process is complete, we’ll engage with academics and linguistic experts to commence the process of vetting and refining the words to make them suitable for use in language.”
Mpumlwana goes on to say how people cannot live with dignity and respect when they live in a society that has no choice but to label them as “unacceptable”.
“We need positive words in our own languages,” concludes Mpumlwana. “This will help in changing the narrative around what it means to be LGBTQQIAP+, and start to break the cycle of micro-aggression and prejudice that we experience every, single day.”
To find new words please visit:
To add new words please visit: