Interview
Courtesy of Babalwa Mtshawu.

INFLUENCED: Meet Babalwa Mtshawu—The YouTuber Unapologetically Sharing Her Intersex Journey With the World

'I grew up thinking that my story was insignificant and that no one wanted to hear it,' says Babalwa Mtshawu.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

When she's not sharing her personal experiences in the hopes of educating her 3000 YouTube subscribers, you can find Babalwa Mtshawu jetting across the world. From Nairobi, Italy to Nepal, Mtshawu documents every exciting minute of her adventures and mishaps: the good, the bad and the really awkward. On her YouTube channel, she talks about her journey as a female-presenting intersex individual and the challenges she often faces in a society that seems adamant about keeping the intersex community completely invisible.

At other times, we're allowed into the romantic life of Mtshawu and her girlfriend, Thando Hlophe—who is also a YouTuber in her own right—and they talk about what any normal couple talks about online. But for them, there's the added dynamic of having to shield aspects of their lives as they live in a world where queer love is always forced to explain itself.

Mtshawu's content has landed her many gigs she never imagined she'd even be offered. She's taken part in various conversations, panels and even a viral BBC interview, where she's shared her views on gender, the queer community and more. Through this, she's earned a seat at the proverbial "table" that Mtshawu has always wanted, but wasn't sure if she was worthy of.

When she's not in front of the camera, Mtshawu is teaching military geography at the University of Stellenbosch.

We sat down with her to talk about what her YouTube channel means to her, where she sees it going in the next few years and the bigger picture of her work within the LGBTQIA+ community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How would you describe the engagement that you've had so far with your community of followers?

Well, I don't have a very big following so it's very easy for me to keep track of who's commenting the most and that kind of stuff. I've gotten very mixed reviews from my subscribers but mostly very positive. My channel is educational as well, because I remember my childhood was about education more than anything. A lot of people are saying that they are learning quite a bit. I just give the crux of the topic and then it's up to the person to do research for themselves because in 10 minutes I can't really tell you everything about that particular topic.

What prompted you to start your own YouTube channel and decide on the type of content that you wanted to create?

I got diagnosed medically that I was intersex when I was 25. I lied to a bunch of my friends and I said, "Oh no, I have cancer," when I was going through my treatment. I think I got to a stage where I wanted to come out to them, but I just didn't want to come out to them one by one. So I decided to shoot a video and put it online. Initially, I thought this video was going to be just for my friends because I just gave them the link. I was shocked when the initial video hit 20k views. That led me to releasing similar content, but because I didn't want it to be a very morbid channel, I tried to diversify the content and include new things like traveling, my career and that kind of stuff.

My Intersex Story || Intersex Awareness Day|| www.youtube.com

Your content is very personal. What have been some of the challenges to creating the kind of content?

Well, the fact that people feel like they are entitled to your life is a challenge. When you don't want to talk about something, people still feel entitled to that particular topic. I'll give you an example. I've made content about being intersex, but there are certain things I don't want to talk about. I'm intersex but I don't advocate for surgery although I went through surgery myself. A lot of people still want me to make a video about surgeries within the intersex community but that's not a topic I'm ready to talk about right now. You also get a lot of people who see my relationship and think that they have a say and can demand content about that too.

What conversations are you hoping to start or to continue with your YouTube Channel?

Basically, I really want to start advocating for intersex bodies and I want to focus mainly on legal work. That's the direction I want to go in. It's very difficult to venture there though because that's not what my followers are necessarily interested in. They want to be educated in a sense and the whole "let's stand together and support intersex people" kind of content may not align with what they want.

How do you navigate what (at times) seems like a trade-off between what you want to talk about and what your listeners want to hear?

What I realized with subscribers, is that you can sway them in the direction that you want them to go so long as you are not very abrupt about it. In almost every video that I've been making lately, I make it a point to let them know that while the channel is about them, it was also never about them at the same time. It was always about me and having a place where I can go back and reflect, put my thoughts out there. In essence, it's my diary and they are lucky enough to get a glimpse into my life. At some point I need to do what I want to do because it's not about the numbers for me, it's mostly about the message.

BEING A TOURIST IN NEPAL|| PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE www.youtube.com

Just within the South African context, looking at Castor Semenya and all the trouble that she's going through, how do you think that society is failing intersex individuals?

I think in most cases people are not ready to learn. And that's partly because we as the LGBTI community, sort of threw everything at everyone all at once and now it's kind of difficult to focus on specific issues. You know, every time that I tell people that my partner is a female and I'm also female-presenting, people call me lesbian, but I am not, I identify as intersex and that is a whole topic on its own. There are just a lot of misunderstandings as well as exclusions that happen within the bigger spectrum. Part of the LGBTI community itself is not supportive. There are exclusions within the community. We as intersex people barely have allies. You can call any LGBTI movement and ask them do they have a division for intersex individuals and there's absolutely nothing.

Are there any particular moments in creating content for your YouTube channel that have surprised you?

Yes, like there are quite a few. I think later on in August, I am talking at the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape. I am part of the panel that's going to be talking about bodily integrity and gender topics. And I feel, for me, for someone who's in the hard sciences to be included in university platforms that are sociology in nature is huge. I don't "qualify" to be there but I'm there. And I feel like those are the moments that I think, "If I didn't create content, if I didn't put myself out there, no-one would have known that I belonged on that particular stage."

The travel that comes with it as well is great. This year I went to Kenya and Nepal and I was sitting on panels, doing podcasts and all of those things are for me, surreal moments where I sit and just take in the many people that are actually listening to my story.

"It's a very important thing for me because I grew up thinking that my story was insignificant and that no one wanted to hear it."

Have there been any pitfalls in talking about being intersex, your journey and everything that comes with that?

Oh yes. A good example would be the BBC Africa interview. What you probably saw was a short skit to sort of get people interested in going over to the main episode which is about 30 minutes. Right? They posted the skit onto their Twitter account and it went viral. I think it reached half a million views in a few days and I didn't even read the comments because the comments were quite brutal. People were very rude and very mean. You know, someone will tell you that they are a biologist and what you're talking about is ridiculous. And some people would be like, "The Europeans have infiltrated Africa now 'cause now we're having European problems", you know because clearly I'm a problem.

There's a lot of negativity associated with the number of views that you probably get because smaller crowds tend to be nicer and bigger crowds tend to be very mean. And when you're talking about your journey within a particular topic that is regarded as taboo in Africa, you're going to deal with a lot of backlash.

'I'm intersex, I don't get periods and I'm going through menopause' - BBC Africa www.youtube.com

How have you managed to carve out a space for yourself where you can disengage from all the negativity?

Actually, there is no running away from it. I think you have to deal with it head-on. I mean, even though I did the eNCA interview not so long ago and that was like a guaranteed 4 million views, people couldn't comment on the eNCA video 'cause it was playing on national TV. However, with the BBC video, could comment and that opened up a whole can of worms in terms of things I thought I had dealt with but I hadn't. So I found myself having had to seek mental health care.

Now I've got a psychologist that I see almost every week and we talk about my journey because even though I am public with my story, my family doesn't like the fact that I am out there like that. I don't even think that they know that I'm on these different social media platforms because for my family, that's not a topic to be discussed openly. But unfortunately for them, this is my story and not theirs.

Amidst all of this, can you think about some really fun moments that you've had creating your content?

There's a video I did entitled "The reason why I hate doctors". I mean, that whole story-line is very sad, if you're presenting it in a sad way but for me it has always been funny. So, there are some videos that when you're thinking about them, they bring tears to your eyes, but the more you shoot the content, the funnier it can sometimes take. I think by the 10th take you can probably find funny elements within the content. And I feel like for me, that's when I actually realize that some topics, as morbid as they may seem, they can also be very, very funny.

What are some of the hopes you have for your YouTube Channel?

Right now I'm currently involved in a lot of academic work pertaining to gender studies and intersex work. So that's the direction that I'm looking at going into. I'm thinking of producing content that is extremely educational. It won't necessarily be in the intersex space, but generally centered on gender-based discussions and mostly from an academic point of view.

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