Artwork: Ayla Liebenberg
Interviewer: Nahum Gale
The airwaves are home to an evolving spectrum of storytelling through diverse voices that are slowly, but surely, demanding our attention. Amidst this, identity is soaking into the media landscape, arising inclusivity for the voices of those acquainted justly to the terms of gender and sexuality. One of those voices is co-host of UniCast’s Zestful show, Ayla Liebenberg, a student studying a Bachelor of Journalism and Professional Writing with a Bachelor of Arts for Creative Writing and Literature. Ayla is a South African born writer, presenter and feminist, identifying as a gender fluid bisexual. From tales of their teenage years in Port Lincoln to their young adulthood in Adelaide, Ayla sat down with Verse to discuss their early life, struggles with gender and sexuality, representation, the media landscape and, of course, the big question: is journalism really dead? And how does this preconceived notion find its place within a patriarchal system?
The young journalist was happy to jump in head first and lend their voice to queer communities in media. The metamorphosis kicks in as Ayla chronicles the identity of journalism and its history of evolution against their more personal and insightful evolution of self.
Would you be comfortable explaining the pronouns of the gender you identify as?
That’s actually really recent for me. By really recent, I mean in the summer holidays that have just happened. I had what I termed as a mild gender crisis.
So, I have actually, for a lot of my life, really been quite comfortable in identifying as a girl and it was a huge part of how I identified. But then all of a sudden – I don’t know why it crept up on me so quickly – but, the weight of the she/her pronouns felt really heavy and not comfortable. I think lots of people have a very distinct idea of what they/ them looks like, this very androgynous, more masculine than feminine vibe and I don’t always fit that kind of vibe. It’s a very recent thing [that] I have been able to be like, ‘I am a gender fluid individual, non-binary.’ I would really like to steer clear of the she/her pronouns, but they/them is a new and very comfortable thing for me. I think its also because of the opportunities I have had to be around people who are trans and gender nonconforming and,
so, looking at them and being like, ‘wow, yeah, there’s actually a lot more expression that I could find within myself that I haven’t really been letting out.’
It’s a very recent thing [that] I have been able to be like, ‘I am a gender fluid individual, non-binary.’
When did you become aware of your gender and sexuality? Was there a specific moment or realisation?
I so vividly remember being on my bedroom floor at 15-years-old with one of my close friends at the time and he was the only one of my friends who wasn’t religious. A lot of the people I was around were religious. And I don’t think I chose him because he was so close to me. I think
I chose him because I knew that he at least wouldn’t be religiously prejudice against me. So, I remember having to sit him down and, I don’t know if most people get this, but having that moment before something big happens you get these head spins and things almost feel like you are hovering outside your body. It was that kind of experience where I felt so scared and so horrible and uncomfortable and… it was a moment of relief obviously. I mean it was
a lot putting it out there for the first time, because you obviously cannot take that back. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. You are putting a lot of trust in that person, especially being a 15-year-old.
A lot of the time it feels like you are not having a lot of support, because the institutions you are a part of and the place you are living doesn’t support you, regardless of your family. Like the social circles I was a part of would not have viewed me as a human being, but now, as an adult, someone who lives relatively independently in a college situation [with] people at university who I am really close with and have similar experiences with, when I came out, I didn’t feel that dread. I actually just messaged a friend and was like, ‘I am having a mild gender crisis, I think I might start using they/she pronouns.’ Then I did and [my friends] were really supportive of that and then basically I would tell people around me, ‘I’m using these now.’
I realised that in absolutely no way do I want my value as a person to be weighted against how much you want to fuck me.
A big element of gender and sexuality is identity and I think, importantly, identity is more than just one’s profession. So outside of journalism and writing, how would you express your identity through things like clothing and music tastes?
When I first moved to Adelaide, I was obviously a very forceful individual, ready to absolutely take no shit, very openly feminist [and] active in the conversations that I think were and are important. In no way has that changed, but what I can see from myself and how I was presenting myself was towards the male gaze. I dressed very straight. Adhering to the male gaze, I looked like a very traditional “girl”. And I guess, at the time, I wasn’t feeling too uncomfortable. I was coming out of an eating disorder at that point so obviously there was a lot of things going on with that.
When I shaved my head, in October of 2019, all of a sudden, I wasn’t “desirable anymore”. So, there was a big thing when I was dressing to cater to the male gaze, to make myself feel like a worthy person and for other people to like me. I realised how much that was true when I shaved my head and, all of a sudden, I wasn’t this desirable object of sex to men anymore. Like all very suddenly, the partner I had at the time was very put off by it. People would come up to me and be like, ‘you looked way better with hair.’ People were just like, ‘you don’t look the same, you don’t look as good.’ I was actually treated worse. So as soon as I wasn’t a sexually desired person, I was just not worth the time of day.
In that process, I think that is what sparked this evolution of my gender identity. I realised that in absolutely no way do I want my value as a person to be weighted against how much you want to fuck me. I became very angry. I was like, ‘I can’t believe all the way up until this point people were just being nice to me because they wanted to have sex with me.’ They might not have actually thought we may ever do it, but in the back of their minds it was their attraction to me that made me worthy of being kind to.
And so, with having a shaved head, I experimented a lot with more masculine clothing. It was all basically a big old fuck you; I will absolutely not adhere to the standards that make you think that I am a worthy human being. I am worthy regardless and I will absolutely not listen to you anymore. And so, dressing more masculine, really leaning into that whole “not trying to dress in a way that is not necessary, on trend or what makes people comfortable” and really sort of pushing the buttons of people and making them feel a little uncomfortable.
I will absolutely not adhere to the standards that make you think that I am a worthy human being.
What drew you to the profession of journalism? Was it the influence of early exposure to patriarchal media platforms?
It actually has very little do with my sexuality and gender. Its more to do with my family back home.
Growing up in South Africa, apartheid ended in 1992 and I was born in 1999. Nelson Mandela was the President at the time I was born and, after that, everyone was so acutely aware of the political discourse that it would have been nearly impossible for me to grow up without being acutely aware of the leaders who were in power. So obviously, I learnt from a very young age from my mother, who was anti-apartheid and was a part of the underground movement who was opposing the apartheid. So, it’s just this huge generational thing I was taught.
I was raised in this hippie household with all these weed smoking hippies who were like, ‘FUCK THE MAN’. So, I was like, ‘yeah fuck The Man.’ I thought a way to do that would be to go into journalism and critique governments and corporations and the big bosses of the world and be like, ‘you are not doing the right thing and that’s not ok’ and calling that out. And I love politics. I love social activism. I love looking at the history of South Africa. I think everyone criminally underrates South Africa and tosses it off as this country that is riddled with poverty and crime, because it
is. Whereas, if you really looked at the colonisation impact, you would see the country had so much going for it until the white people came and fucked it up.
So, that is why I wanted to go into journalism.
Unfortunately, I had very little power over that coming out, which was really shitty.
Have you ever felt represented in media efficiently and correctly and, if so, whereabouts?
My mother has mentioned to me a Stan show called The Bisexual that she thought I should watch. It helps her understand. I mean, my family isn’t homophobic but, what is interesting, when I came out it was actually really complicated. Even though for them the gays are ok, when they realised their child was queer, they had some trouble with it.
I came out a year later to my mother after I did to my friend and I only did because there was an incident that was essentially an outing and I really couldn’t keep it under wraps any longer. I think it really shocked her because, up until that point, I think I was only outwardly interested in boys because, yeah, I do like guys. But at the time I really liked girls. But now I realise I just like people.
So essentially what happened was I came out at 15,like I said, and I came out to my nonreligion friend. I did however have a group of friends who were really religious, or were actively practising it with their families. Anyway, I really wanted to come out to them because I wanted to date girls and I really just could not keep this hidden much longer. I wasn’t prepared to tell my parents yet. For whatever reason I felt my friends were the first step for me… I don’t know why. I went to a church service with them, because that was the thing you did. There was this guest speaker. She came to our school and I heard her speak and thought she was really good. She wasn’t your real typical preacher; she was a woman first off and she spoke of all these hectic things that had happened in her life. She was a very imperfect person and she talked about that… but I was sort of set on asking her what to do. I went up to her after the service and said, ‘listen, my friends are religious and I am gay and I don’t know how to tell them and want your advice as a religious person who is obviously an imperfect person and has all these flaws and has done all these things.’ I just thought at the time, for whatever reason, she could give me some sort of guidance. Instead, she said that I was a demon and that I was terrible and awful and would go to hell and that my friends would never love me and if I told them they wouldn’t speak to me because I was disgusting and terrible… which is a lot for a 16-year-old to hear. She was just terrible and not helpful at all and quite horrific and traumatic because I was just like, at that time, ‘I’m going to lose all my friends and I will never be the same to them and they will never forgive me’, as if I was doing anything wrong.
I went home after that, in tears, and my mum had friends over. I went down to my room crying. She saw me and, as mums do, she came and checked on me. I was trying to tell her it was nothing, making up excuses, but eventually she was like, ‘obviously something is wrong’… so, I had to tell her.
Unfortunately, I had very little power over that coming out, which was really shitty. Its important to come out on your own terms because mum wasn’t ready to hear that and I wasn’t ready to tell her. And that was the first time I had spoken to her about it, and then I can’t remember a single conversation about it after that. She sort of ignored it. Then I dated three men after that from 16 to 20, so I don’t think she ever had to come to terms with it. We never spoke about it, so eventually it just got so heavy. The longer we left it, she never asked, we never spoke about it, and then she brought up very randomly one day, when I was home for holidays, the show, The Bisexual. And I think that was her way of trying to connect to me.
I haven’t come out to her as gender fluid. I have decided not to. I have decided I am it. I put my pronouns in my bio and I will correct her when I see her. I have decided not to do that again because it’s so emotionally exhausting. Instead of coming out, I am happening. It is what it is.
Even though for them [m the gays are ok, when they realised their child was queer, they had some trouble with it.
Do you have any mentors or idols you look up to?
Definitely my mother and my godmother – huge people for me in my life. My godmother worked for the UN; she would go to the Middle East and help relocate women who have been displaced because of America basically going in and fucking up the Middle East. I sort of distinctly remember when I was 12-years-old waxing my legs (which I felt was an age-appropriate thing to do apparently) making fun of my little sister for not being old enough to wax her legs. I said that in front of my godmother who then gave me an hour-long lecture on why body hair is not terrible and gross and why I shouldn’t be shaming anyone for not removing their hair. I distinctly remember her yelling at me for that. So that was
the sort of thing I grew up with. Whenever I see her, she always gives me these things to read and these people to talk to and all these things to think about. She challenges me quite a lot.
I have actually tried to write something about my godmother because what has been tough in the past couple of years is that she is obviously of an era of feminism that was very distinct for the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. Now we’re moving into the 2020s and feminism has changed quite a lot. It’s very hard to have conversations with her now, where I speak about feminism. She obviously knows about it in theory but we practice feminism really differently. She’s a part of the grassroots OG bra burners, that were like, ‘fuck the government, fuck The Man – lets burn down the patriarchy’, but also in the sense that feminism at that time was mostly for women. Now intersectional feminism is for everyone because everyone is affected by the patriarchy. Very, very rightly so she has a very big grudge against men working with displaced women in war torn countries. She has seen men in power do awful and terrible things to the world and people. So, it’s been really hard, not surpassing her in anyway, but like going off in a different direction of feminism and not really being able to connect with that anymore when that was such a foundation for our connection initially.
What are you currently working on in your chosen field of journalism? What goals have you smashed so far?
I am concentrating on radio quite a bit right now. Initially when I came into journalism, I thought I wanted to do print, and after doing a year of print work (which was fun) we did radio in second year and I fell in love. I thought it was the best thing ever. I really wanted to learn how to structure a show, get friends on board, run a show by myself, run a show with people. I have done all of that being able to work with UniCast.
I am now working at The Wire which is at Radio Adelaide; it’s been the most fun I’ve had. I get to go in every week and write a story all by myself and I get to do my thing, talk to really interesting people and write about stuff that I care about, and go home at the end of the day and show my friends what I did. So, radio is definitely where I want to go in the future. I am really open to moving into print, television or podcasting but right now [radio] is calling to me quite heavily. I don’t know what it is about it, apart from the fact I articulate myself better when I speak than when I write. I like the certainty about it. There is so much more depth to the voice rather than the written word. There is a lot of power in the written word, but I feel like the dimensions of speech in radio can convey a lot that you lose in print. I really love radio and I hope that’s where I end up.
Journalism is not dead, it’s just evolving.
Just for people who say journalism is dead, how would you go about breaking that stigma and explaining what journalism is now?
I think that whole idea feeds into the big idea where the government doesn’t appreciate arts and media like they should. Its sort of like when people say that arts aren’t important or the humanities aren’t important when they watch Netflix which, you know, obviously an artist creates for, writes for and produces. And people are like, ‘oh I don’t watch the news, the news is stupid’, but then they will go on Instagram and scroll through literally hours’ worth of news. It’s just that thing of nothing being stagnant, everything grows and develops and there’s always a continuous mutation of ideas. Journalism is not dead, it’s just evolving. And it might have died at some point, but it’s like death and rebirth. For a really long-time, journalism was this one thing where you had a male dominated force telling you what was happening in the way the government wanted you to know it and now that’s not the case when you get people speaking out about their own experiences and their own voice. [They talk] about how journalism is dying and how Rupert Murdoch is seen as this evil man when he’s not “that evil” … and it’s just like, no journalism is not dying, you are dying, you are gone, you are dead and we are coming. We are growing and [journalism] is not for you anymore. And I think that rhetoric has just been repeated by younger people, because their parents are telling them journalism died. These old men are scared the foundations they have created are crumbling beneath them because now we have a force like social media, radio, YouTube and podcasting to tell stories; the stories they never wanted to tell. They are just saying “journalism is dying’, when it’s not, it’s absolutely not. It’s rebirthing itself. ??
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