Celebrating Black History Month: Nthabiseng Mokoena

Nthabiseng Mokoena is a prominent South African intersex activist whose strength and courage as one of the very first (if not the very first) black South Africans to advocate publicly for intersex rights we celebrate today.

Mokoena was born wth ambiguous genitalia in rural South Africa, where many people believe that children born intersex are the product ofwitchcraft and therefore their families are cursed. According to Shaine Griqua, director of the LGBTI rights organization Legbo Northern Cape, from 2008 to 2010 LEGBO conducted interviews with midwives and traditional birth attendants cross the province and found that it was their practice to break the necks of such babies while the mother was unaware of what was happening, and tell the mothers that their babies had been still born.

As Mokoena has shared in interviews, although she survived, “the perplexed midwife told my mother to take me to a doctor when I was six months old… He advised immediate “genital normalisation” surgery to remove the phallus, making my genitals unmistakably female in appearance. My mother refused….”

Despite having to hide her physical difference she had a blsssful childhood until the age of 13, when it was noticed that was not developing like other girls. She was taken to another doctor who also recommended cosmetic genital surgery, but Mokoena’s mother again refused, saying Nthabiseng could decide for herself at the age of 18.

Mokoena excelled at school, but struggled with having to hide her true identity and faced negative responses from her Catholic Church when she came out to them as intersex. In 2011, she learned about an organization named Transgender and Intersex Africa and phoned them the next day. She was searching for a new doctor as she was terrified, by her own admission, that her clitoris would grow into a full penis, and she found one. “The doctor even said he would do the surgery for free make my clitoris totally feminine but he wanted to use me as a case history. I flatly refused to be exposed in that degrading way.”

That same year, Mokoena joined Transgender and Intersex Africa, initially as a board member and then later becoming Advocacy Coordinator. The organisation promotes the rights of transgender and intersex persons in rural areas and townships in South Africa.

“…the more I met other people like me the more I realized how privileged I am that I didn’t get an operation, that I’m thankful that I did not get an operation when I was born,” Mokoena shares, “Because people who did, they’re going through a very hard time at the moment because the surgeries have got very negative effects on them. So, I’m not ashamed of who I am anymore. I love myself.”

Mokoena’s brilliance and strength as an intersex activist is evidenced in the trailer for an upcoming documentary about Mokoena below, which we can’t wait to see!

Our E.D. first met Nthabiseng when she participated as the South African representative at the Second International Intersex Forum in Stockholm in 2012, and immediately resonated with and appreciated Mokoena’s confidence and self-love as an intact, visibly intersex person. In 2015, Mokoena joined the international advisory board for the Intersex Human Rights Fund, established by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. She is currently the Regional Training and Capacity Strengthening Officer for the AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern and East Africa.

We commend Mokoena’s courage and years of dedication as an intersex activist, and look forward to witnessing her strong voice and presence for intersex equality for years to come!