Telling her story: Nombulelo Khumalo

To celebrate Intersex Awareness Day on October 26, IAM spoke with Nombulelo Khumalo, a vocal advocate for intersex awareness and queer activist. 

Nombulelo lives in Durban where she is currently studying towards her Honours degree in Theology, majoring in Gender and Religion and Health studies. She is also a student minister in the Methodist church of Southern Africa. Much of her activism work centres around the understanding and acceptance of queer bodies within the Methodist church and in society at large. 

As a person of faith, Nombulelo has long grappled with how the church treats queer people. “On my journey of becoming uNombulelo, my church has not taken a stance of acceptance or rejection of queer bodies. So we’re just basically in the borderline, we’re not sure whether we’re in or we’re out. We’re just given a term of acceptance, but not fully given all privileges which other “normal” people would necessarily get. For instance, if you are clergy within the Methodist church you cannot be married to same sex. I was born intersexed, but I now identify as a lesbian person, so automatically I am deprived of the privilege of being able to marry any of my kind.

At times, LGBTIQ+ is used indiscriminately as an umbrella term without differentiating between the experiences of people identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, for example, and the issues of the intersex community are especially varied and misunderstood. “Having been born intersexed, these are some choices I did not make as a person to be the gender that I am right now. I was born intersexed, with both genitals averted, and my parents at a very tender age took those decisions for me, so now what I just need to do is pick up the pieces and move on. 

I feel the church wanting to exclude people like me, intersexed people, is actually saying that we are now to be crucified for decisions which were made for us and not by us. I always feel like a person should be judged for their own actions, and not those of others. The decisions which my parents took back then were for their good, and for their benefit, and for their labels which have nothing to do with being you. So now I’m just picking up the pieces and becoming me.”

Nombulelo strongly believes that showing up, being visible in spaces and telling her own story is the most powerful way to affect change. “Most of the reasons why people, I feel, are being judgemental is because they are naïve or misled. It’s because they do not actually see these people, they do not actually hear from them, they just hear theories and stories. We must be more visible, we must say “No, it’s not a theory, it’s not something you go read out of a book, it’s me, it’s me”. What I’ve been saying “This is me. I am here, I’m visible. Take it or leave it, but this is who I am and I’m here”. I always draw from my narrative, my journey, my story, my life.” 

Nombulelo is still a student minister, so she is still working with the congregation she has grown up with. They have known her for her whole life, and seen the changes she has gone through, so it has perhaps been easier for them to see and understand. “There is a crowd that I’m reaching, a crowd which can truly understand the shifts and the changes which have happened in an intersexed person they know, who they’ve talked to, who they’ve touched and lived with.”

A new challenge will be when she is ordained and is called to serve a new congregation who doesn’t have the same history of personal knowledge of her life, but she is preparing herself as best she can to continue these conversations wherever she is called.

“It’s a matter of just allowing yourself to be open-minded, to be emotionally strong, and trying to better educate yourself, making sure that you will be able to confront and have answers to people’s questions. There is no best way to prepare yourself, but it’s a matter of making sure that you know your story, you’re comfortable with who you are, and you’re not afraid to tell your story. 

We live within society, we live with these people. So, for me that community is the best space to make change – being free, teaching myself to be open to answer questions as honestly as I can for people who seek to be informed or educated, and just educating myself of different mindsets, different environments, different upbringing of people, so that I’ll be able not to not just sit in, but to be able to live my truth in any space, even if it’s not a space which is truly welcoming.

Nombulelo has taken up the challenge of embodying change and working to open doors that is at the heart of its work. She is using her lived experience to humanize the different aspects of her identity for people she interacts with. “I’m never going to leave a room or a gathering without saying anything about queer bodies or intersex people so that the language, or the terminology, or those lives are not just subjects of closed doors, they’re subjects of reality.”