Breaking the academic stereotype – an interview with Dr Lauren Mongie

“I just woke up one morning and thought, “I have to do something in the world. I can’t just be here. I can’t just eat, watch TV and sleep. Somehow I need to actively participate in the world, otherwise I don’t want to be part of it.”

Doctor Lauren Mongie (32) sits at her L-shaped desk in her spacious 5th floor office. Everything on her desk is neatly organised and spaced apart, creating rectangles and circles that coexist in harmony.

With a pink-lacquered nail, she pushes back her slightly oversized, pink-rimmed glasses, and stares with an intensity that is amplified by her light blue eyes.

“I started doing a lot of charity work, because I felt like I’m just sitting here and I’m not contributing to anything. I could die and society would be better off because there’s one less person breathing the air and drinking the water. Even if it doesn’t change anything I want to go to bed knowing that I tried.”

Mongie is one of the head linguists at the University of Stellenbosch’s (US) linguistics department. She finished her PhD in 2013, and completed her whole undergraduate and postgraduate career at SU as well.

She specialises in queer linguistics, a new movement that essentially combines queer theory with language studies. Mongie sees herself as a strong ally and an activist for the LGBTQI+ community.

She recently completed a study of the portrayal of the gay liberation movement in South African news media. In it, she drew on 30 years’ worth of data, from 1976 until 2006.

Mongie says there are very few academic studies done on this specific movement.

“There isn’t a lot of knowledge about the South African gay liberation movement. Most of what’s been written is non-academic in nature,” she says, “so they’re more like first-hand ethnographic accounts of people that were part of the movement.”

She says she wanted to contribute to a constructive conversation of sex and gender in South Africa. “They’re such contested issues and I really wanted to investigate how the role of the culture of apartheid played in homophobia and heteronormativity.

“I felt there was a link between the racial oppression and the sexual oppression, but I actually wanted to find some kind of proof of that connection.”

She shuffles some papers in front of her and then adjusts her pink, striped scarf. She admits that pink is obviously her favourite colour.

In terms of her attitude towards gender and sexuality, Mongie says she has always been a progressive person in relation to the rest of South Africa.

“I’ve always been puzzled by homophobia and gender binaries. It really came from a place of wanting to understand how something like homophobia develops both individually and societally,” she says.

“I wanted to understand what the origin of it is, because I felt like that was an important part of trying to address the rampant homophobia in our country.

“South Africa is interesting, because we have one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, yet we have one of the highest rates of homophobic murder and rape in the world.

“So there’s a really strong disconnect between the values of the constitution and the values by which actual South Africans live their lives,” she adds.

“A lot of places look at South Africa as the best place in Africa, the most liberal. In terms of the law, we are, but even that law isn’t enforced in this country, never mind what people do beyond the law.

“It was really interesting to me how we got into this position of having a constitution that doesn’t really represent the values of the majority of South Africans, it was something I felt I needed to look at,” she says.

“I’m a linguist, so my data is language. The thing that I can use to gain insight into homophobia, heteronormativity, the role of apartheid, etc. was actual media reports in which people made arguments for and against the acceptance of alternative forms of gender and sexuality.”

Mongie says she had to collect 30 years’ worth of data for her PhD study and initially thought that the archive would be available electronically. She soon found out that it wasn’t.

“I had to go to the archives in Cape Town and sit with each literal copy of the City Press and the Mail & Guardian from 1976 until 2006, and physically page through it, photocopy the articles and then do a step-by-step linguistic analysis on it.

“The actual physical data collection process was very taxing. It took nine months and it cost me about R30 000 since you have to pay for lithographs that have to be printed,” she says.

“It was a very labour-intensive process, but I still prefer that to working with humans, because I feel like they are quite unreliable and unpredictable.”

Mongie says she “really dislikes” humans and prefers the company of animals instead. She briefly mentions that she has five pets at home; three dogs and two cats.

“There are all sorts of variables that are added to a study when you work with humans, so I prefer not to, that’s why I’d rather work with linguistic data,” she smiles.

The process of analysis was quite easy, says Mongie, since that is guided by linguistic theories. She says the hardest part was essentially obtaining the data because it entailed reading through every single newspaper.

“We were looking for slight references to sexuality and not only for articles about homosexuality. I was looking for slight comments on gender, non-conformity etc.

“So I ended up physically reading 30 years’ worth of two newspapers. It was cool because I felt like I lived through the history of South Africa by going through that process,” she says.

“Things that I previously only heard about, I felt like I experienced it, because I read the reports as they unfolded. I read the letters people wrote in response to the reports, so it was really an interesting way to gain insight into a history I missed since I was just born too late.

“It was labour-intensive, but it was actually an enriching experience. I feel like a better South African now, because I know so much more about our country’s history.”

Interestingly, Mongie also looked at Huisgenoot and Drum magazine’s data from the same period even though it didn’t make it into her PhD study. She smiles and says that that was very interesting since the content was more tabloid-style.

“There you find much less filtered, unedited, and raw kind of conversations. It was difficult to read racist, homophobic, and misogynistic stuff, and to think that was how the world used to be. But I think it really made me understand where all these different sentiments came from,” she says.

Mongie says she chose 30 years because 1976 is seen by a lot of people as the start of the end of apartheid.

“They see the Soweto riots as the turning point where black mobilisation really began. I wanted to cover those 30 years until 2006, which is when gay marriage was legalised in South Africa.

“The amount of data that came out of it was just so overwhelming. I had almost 800 newspaper articles, letters, and stories just from the two newspapers. For a meaningful analysis, you have to write about three to five pages on one item,” she says.

“The ultimate goal of critical discourse analysis of queer linguistics is to challenge the unconstructive ways in which we talk about topics like race, gender, and sexuality. Thus gaining insight so that you can challenge and produce a more productive way of talking about these things.”

Mongie says critical discourse analysis is a social agenda. It wants to improve society in some way.

“That’s part of the weakness of critical discourse analysis, that people accuse us of being subjective and over-political, and too strongly positioned in our research. While we think that’s the strength of what we do.”

She says her findings surprised her, since they went against her original hypothesis in a rather big way.

“My main hypothesis was that there was going to be a strong link between religion and homophobia. There was, but there was almost an equally strong link between religion and tolerance or acceptance,” she says.

“If you look at the first 10 years of my data, it’s very homophobic and very religiously motivated, but over time a lot of religious people started adopting religious arguments that promoted the acceptance and inclusion of the LGBT community.

“That was a very big surprise to me, I was expecting religious homophobia to run all the way through and at a point it didn’t, it turned. If you quantify my data at the end, almost half of it is religious tolerance and the other half religious intolerance. It was definitely not something I was expecting,” she says.

Mongie says it made her feel better about religion. “I’m not a religious person and I always felt like religion is very harmful. But after seeing this data, it made me see the good side of religion and the tolerant side of Christianity. It was nice to see and I was pleasantly surprised.”

Regarding future studies, Mongie says she’s definitely interested in the same kind of studies, thus still in queer linguistics.

“I think I’m going to move on from newspapers to something more subjective like tabloids or even online comments. I’m contemplating using the comments as data, to look how people construct and deconstruct these different issues and then make meaning out of them.

“What’s interesting about comment sections is that people argue with and attack each other. Where instead of attacking the person’s opinion they attack personally. It’s a completely different discursive dynamic that is present there that I haven’t looked at before,” she says.

Mongie says LGBTIQ+ students and staff can approach her and share their experiences, since she seeks to help in any way possible.

“I take part in a lot of discussions across campus. I’m very involved with the equality unit and with LLL. Anytime someone has a gay talk on campus, I’m there, whether I’m talking or not. I really try to bring those findings from my PhD and make them useful to a normal person.”

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Author: walterhaywardbotha

I'm a Journalism Honours student at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

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