Gen­der ac­tivist finds her true self af­ter sex change

Grow­ing up Azara Raphael felt she was in the wrong body – but thanks to a sex change she’s liv­ing her best life and fi­nally feels at peace


SINCE child­hood she knew she was dif­fer­ent from other kids. Azara Raphael’s jour­ney to truly be­come her­self, as a trans­gen­der woman in South Africa, has been a painful one marked by abuse from rel­a­tives and dis­crim­i­na­tion in her com­mu­nity. Now she’s shar­ing her story as a bea­con of hope to oth­ers.

She wants peo­ple to know there are many trans­gen­der women out there, and they’re just like ev­ery­one else. “We have ca­reers and fam­i­lies, and the only thing we can’t do is bear our own chil­dren, but we are who we are.”

Azara (34) has al­ways known she is a woman in a male body.

Dur­ing her child­hood she had the un­flinch­ing love and sup­port of her par­ents. “I have al­ways been com­fort­able with my­self and my sex­u­al­ity be­cause of the sup­port from my fam­ily. They never treated me any dif­fer­ent from my two younger siblings or cousins,” she tells us at her home in Midrand.

Her par­ents, South African mother Juliet Maseko and Ja­maican fa­ther Michael Raphael, al­lowed her “the free­dom to ex­press my­self how­ever I wanted, with my dress or hair­styles”.

“They taught me to stand up for what I be­lieved in and to never seek val­i­da­tion from any­one. From a young age I knew what I wanted, and I knew to call out treat­ment I didn’t like,” she tells us.

The fi­nan­cial con­sul­tant and gen­der ac­tivist was born in Soweto as Vusumuzi Maseko and grew up across the con­ti­nent as her fa­ther’s work took the fam­ily to Kenya, Zim­babwe, Mozam­bique and An­gola.

When Azara was a teenager, her fa­ther told her she needed to work ex­tra hard at school. “So I could af­ford a bet­ter life for my­self be­cause I was dif­fer­ent from other chil­dren. He told me

not ev­ery­one would un­der­stand how I look, and that there would be peo­ple who would try to dim my light be­cause of my sex­u­al­ity, and I shouldn’t al­low it.”

When she was nine her par­ents split up “and my bub­ble of pro­tec­tion burst”.

SHE moved with her mom to a flat in Berea, Jo­han­nes­burg, and her mother be­gan dat­ing the man who would be­come her step­fa­ther.

Azara quickly learnt just how cruel peo­ple could be. “He would tell my mother, ‘ Your son will be f***ed by other men’, and he didn’t care if I heard him or not. He’d belit­tle me at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity and re­fer to me as Queen El­iz­a­beth.”

Life was aw­ful at home, and at school things were no bet­ter. She was bul­lied and os­tracised by fel­low learn­ers and teach­ers be­cause she was dif­fer­ent, Azara re­calls.

“Par­ents would tell their chil­dren not to play with me at school or af­ter school be­cause they said I would teach the kids how to be gay. Teach­ers would also mock me about how I walked, dressed and spoke.” Be­ing an out­cast af­fected her self-esteem badly and she be­came with­drawn, only speak­ing when spo­ken to in class, and tak­ing part in fewer and fewer school ac­tiv­i­ties.

She hated her pe­nis and would take baths in the dark to avoid see­ing it. “I’d also tuck it away. That was a painful ex­er­cise.”

At around age 14 she be­came ob­sessed with get­ting rid of the body part. “I re­searched like a mad per­son about am­pu­tat­ing it. A friend even told me about peo­ple who would let a crab bite them so they could change their sex.” Frus­trated and des­per­ate, Azara took a ra­zor blade to her­self and tried to am­pu­tate it. “I was bleed­ing so badly that I had to be rushed to hos­pi­tal to re­ceive med­i­cal at­ten­tion,” she says.

She later found out about a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure to re­move tes­ti­cles at Life Carsten­hof Hos­pi­tal, and with the help of an older friend who posed as her mother be­cause she wasn’t yet 18, she un­der­went the two-hour surgery. She was in ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain once the mor­phine wore off af­ter the surgery, “but

I was happy that one part of the un­wanted or­gans had been re­moved.”

Azara cel­e­brated her 18th birth­day by go­ing to home af­fairs to legally change her name and gen­der, as she was go­ing to univer­sity the fol­low­ing year. “My plan was to have a new name and not to be en­rolled as a man,” she says.

“For the gen­der change they needed an af­fi­davit from the po­lice and a let­ter from my doc­tor, as well as an in­de­pen­dent doc­tor who had ex­am­ined me and ap­proved my re­quest for the change. For the name change I only had to fill in a form in­di­cat­ing my rea­sons and my new name.”

STILL, she wanted her out­ward ap­pear­ance to re­flect how she felt on the in­side. “I al­ways knew I was a woman born in a man’s body.” In 2010 Azara un­der­went a com­plete sex change at a clinic in Thai­land. She paid for it us­ing the R250 000 she’d been given by a fi­nan­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion to­wards her tu­ition, but her par­ents later gave her the same amount of money to pay for her stud­ies.

The oper­a­tion was a suc­cess “and af­ter months of re­cov­ery and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion treat­ment I was in love with my new looks. I no longer had to live through the pain of tuck­ing my man­hood be­tween my thighs and cov­er­ing it with un­der­wear to en­sure it didn’t slip out.

“I had be­come the woman I al­ways wanted to be.”

Azara, who is sin­gle at the mo­ment, would like to set­tle down and start a fam­ily when she finds her soul­mate. “Be­cause bi­ol­ogy doesn’t al­low for me to have my own chil­dren, I’m toy­ing with the idea of adopt­ing two chil­dren in the near fu­ture.”

Be­ing a trans­gen­der woman can be dan­ger­ous, says Azara, who was raped in 2015 af­ter her drink was spiked in a club.

“I woke up with a bad headache in a bed I didn’t know. Ev­ery­thing that hap­pened the pre­vi­ous night was a blur. Peo­ple take ad­van­tage of trans­gen­der women – they want to ex­per­i­ment with us and see if we are sex­u­ally dif­fer­ent from other women.”

As a board mem­ber of Ac­cess Chap­ter 2, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion which ad­vo­cates for the rights of LGBTI+ (Les­bian, Gay, Bi­sex­ual, Trans­gen­der and In­ter­sex) peo­ple, Azara says she al­ways tells trans­gen­der women “not to dis­close their sex­u­al­ity to any­one, as they don’t owe any­one an ex­pla­na­tion.

“The re­al­ity is that we are liv­ing in a dan­ger­ous so­ci­ety and peo­ple will take ad­van­tage of you and want to ex­per­i­ment with you,” she warns.

“I en­cour­age women not to seek val­i­da­tion or ap­proval from any­one – you’re per­fect as you are.”

Azara Raphael (LEFT) was born in Soweto and raised as Vusumuzi Maseko (ABOVE). But she says she al­ways knew she was not a boy in­side.

As a teenager Azara hated her body and wanted to get rid of her pe­nis.

Thanks to a sex change in 2010 she’s the woman she al­ways wanted to be.

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