‘Many people don’t even know what it means to be transgender’
Trapped in the wrong bodies, they face much relentless discrimination
AS SOUTH Africa celebrates Women’s Month with pomp and ceremony, there is a certain group of women who fear for their lives daily just because they are different.
Transgender women are women who were born men but believe that they were trapped in the wrong bodies and now live as women. While others take hormone therapy to look more feminine, some even go as far as having surgery to change their gender.
Despite the fact that the rights of transgender people are protected by the constitution, transgender women still feel discriminated against – something that makes their daily living a challenge.
Denise Zambezi, co-ordinator of Access Chapter 2, said many people don’t understand the concept of a transgender person.
Zambezi’s organisation is an advocacy group and one of it’s mandates is to ensure that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex (LGBTQI) community get justice when they have been victims of hate crimes.
Zambezi said one of the things they found when conducing research was that many transgender women battled to access hormonal treatment and would instead go to the black market, take birth control pills and self-medicate in their quest to look feminine. The after-effects of that would be blinding headaches.
“The reasons for going that route are that some people are worried about going through the health care system and being discriminated against,” she said.
“For others it could be because they want the process to be quick. We are still in the process of speaking to the Department of Health and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development regarding these as it makes it difficult for them to live fulfilling lives.
“They don’t feel safe in their surroundings and others are just beaten-up for being transgender.”
Snowy Mamba, a transgender woman, said discrimination against transgender people can even cost lives.
Some time ago, Mamba was hospitalised after suffering an asthma attack.
As she identifies and lives as a woman, Mamba was taken to a female ward but her ID at the time still identified her as a man.
She said she was surprised when the following day doctors and nurses kept closing and opening curtains around her bed. Later, they asked to see her ID.
“They said they needed to discharge me. I asked them why, as I was still on oxygen and a drip and they said: ‘the hospital does not cater for people like you’.” Mamba said she understood but was not going to let them kick her out of the hospital when she was so ill.
“I sat on the bed and refused to be discharged. I told them it was my human right to access health care but they said they would remove me by force,” she said.
Mamba said she called journalists and activists who then called the hospital to enquire about the matter. At that juncture, the hospital decided not to discharge her. She was moved to a private ward.
“My biggest problem was what if that person was not me, but someone from the rural areas without access to information about their rights?
‘The SA system is gender fearing, not affirming’
That discrimination could cost lives,” she said.
Mamba said another discriminatory incident happened at work. While the organisation that employed her knew that she was a transgender woman, one of the women in a senior position at work had a problem with her using the female bathroom.
The woman even called human resources to intervene.
“I remember sitting in a hearing, very angry. I told them that I would not use the male bathroom and if people were not comfortable with me using the female bathroom, they should go to the bathrooms at their homes as they are gender neutral,” she said.
“I threatened to sue them if they fired me and they backed down.”
Mamba said she did not know why people had a problem with transgender people but that it could be that, generally, the South African system was gender fearing and not gender affirming.
“Research we did last year showed that 60% of transgender women were vulnerable to abuse,” she said.
“Transgender women have challenges. I am scared of going out, when I get into taxis I try to be calm and not talk. I can’t even answer my phone because people will stare as I have a deep voice. They will say ‘gay this, gay that’ and I am not even gay, I’m a transgender person.”
Zambezi said there was much more education needed to educate people about transgender people to lessen the challenges they face daily.
Some time ago, her organisation had to intervene in the matter of a transgender woman whose employer did not know whether it should be a male or female security guard searching her.
The matter was even reported to the CCMA, Zambezi said.
“Many people don’t even know what it means to be a transgender; they don’t even know the correct terminology to address them with. We need for people to know more about them,” she said.
SCARED: Snowy Mamba, who is going through a transition from male to female, shares her journey at her home in Tsakane, on the East Rand.