I just wanted to be me
Born into male bodies, Yaya Mavundla and Nicole Louw both realised early on they were not like other boys. Leonie Wagner spoke to them about the social and emotional challenges of becoming trans women
Framed pictures cover the walls of Yaya Mavundla’s Houghton apartment. Photographs, oil paintings, digital paintings, every image is of her. While doing final makeup touches she announces that she’s got three outfits for today’s photo shoot. She recently ditched her Brazilian weaves for a trendy peroxideblonde brush cut.
A fake white fur coat, a chiffon shirt and a black sequined jacket lie on her bed. Mavundla, 32, is nervous and excited.
The transgender activist and celebrity publicist has been catapulted from behind the scenes to centre stage — she has landed a role in Becoming, the new Mzansi Magic reality series that takes viewers into the homes of transgender people.
When we meet Mavundla, she’s been commissioned by award-winning singer Zahara to style her for the release of her next album. She’s also in talks with another reality-television star about becoming her stylist and publicist.
But her love of fashion started long before she had celebrity clients.
“I remember when I was growing up in the deep rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal I never really associated myself with boys. I had two guy friends but they were also very feminine, like me, and all my other friends were girls.
“I remember,” she laughs, “how I used to make a skirt and a crop top out of a plastic rice bag.”
Growing up in Kranskop, Ntunjambili, a small town on the edge of the Tugela valley, she had no idea she was transgender.
The first hint that she was different was in primary school when she would arrange modelling pageants and walk the ramp with the girls, dressed in their clothes. At 15 she moved to Durban; in high school, she always wanted the female role in school plays.
“I was constantly being bullied and kids would say I’m gay. At that time I didn’t know what a gay person was. I thought I was gay, but I wasn’t,” Mavundla says.
In Durban she dabbled in drag and started organising drag shows at clubs. This was around the time that she met visual artist Zanele Muholi, who played a pivotal role in exposing Mavundla to different aspects of issues related to gender.
“Every time I was dressed up, I’d feel more alive. I’d be at peace. I enjoyed myself more when I had makeup on and was dressed up. I had no desire to be butch, mostly I’d feel very uncomfortable.
“Then when I really discovered myself more, and said this is really who I am, I’ve never really looked back.”
It was a shopping trip with friends that helped her realise her love for drag was something deeper.
Mavundla still vividly remembers the day she bought women’s lingerie and women’s clothes. Once she discovered the concept of “transgender”, and realised it fitted her identity, she started doing research.
Mavundla has identified as transgender for almost nine years. Having learnt about hormone treatments, therapy and gender reassignment surgery, she quickly realised that she couldn’t afford to physically transition.
The first hurdle is the 25-year waiting list in SA for people wanting to undergo gender reassignment surgery. One option would be travelling to the US or the UK, where there’s a two- to three-year waiting list.
Then there’s the cost. Thailand is considered one of the cheapest places to have the surgery done, and even there the bill can run to about R400,000.
Hormone replacement therapy alone can cost anywhere between R500 and R1,500 a month.
Nicole Louw has been on hormone therapy for about five years. When I first met Louw two years ago she was also starring in a reality series, Outpatients, featuring Dr Cathy, a Johannesburg doctor specialising in aesthetic medicine.
Louw’s goal was to feminise her facial features with fillers and Botox. She did her jawline, lips and frown lines.
She is still working on her looks, but she seemed more comfortable in her skin when we met at her home in Linden, Johannesburg. She admits to having initially picked out a dress to wear, to appear more feminine.
“I put a dress on and I was like, this isn’t me. I don’t wear a dress all the time. I will wear a dress from time to time, but it’s not me …
“Today I thought I need to come across more feminine because that’s what society tells us. That’s what I’ve been told by other trans girls, I’m not trans enough, because I’m not hyper-feminine,” Louw says.
Both Mavundla and Louw say they have been told they aren’t feminine enough.
Louw admits with a laugh that she’s not the typical “trans Barbie”.
At high school she played rugby for the first team, and now she is determined to challenge stereotypes of what a transgender woman should look like. Her journey officially started in 2012 but Louw knew from as young as five that her male identity didn’t fully fit. Playing with her boy cousins she always wanted to be the damsel in distress who needed saving.
Later she’d steal her mom’s dresses and parade in them when no-one was home. She was quickly told “that’s not what boys do” and by the time she reached puberty the feelings she secretly wrestled with subsided — but only temporarily.
“Once I hit 16, it came back with a massive vengeance, and then the same thing happened where I was dressing up in private. That’s also where I became very aggressive. I always just portrayed myself as a boy for those around me that wanted me to be a boy,” Louw says.
She deliberately started bar fights, became a club bouncer and started cage fighting. With the fighting came excessive drinking and depression. In her early 20s Louw was drinking a bottle of tequila a night.
As her dysphoria intensified, so did her drinking and she plunged deeper into depression.
At that point she was a 110kg steroid-popping alpha male, overcompensating for the fact that she was living a lie.
“My hating my body, hating being identified as male. It got very hectic because obviously with drinking comes massive depression.
“So it got to a point where I was literally going to kill myself, I was sitting there with a knife in my hand. I decided that telling people couldn’t be worse than dying.”
A friend who knew her secret hosted a crossdressing-themed party specifically for Louw to be able to dress as herself, without anyone knowing. This was also the night when she came out to her mother.
“The night that my friend had that party, I sent a photo to my mom as a joke, you know, just to be like, ‘here’s me in a dress’.
“And she replied, also as a joke back, saying
‘thanks for giving me the daughter that I always wanted’. I realised I should probably tell her I think I’m trans.
“So that’s how I came out to my mom,” Louw says. It’s been eight years since she started transitioning. Like Mavundla, Louw’s journey hasn’t been easy. Both women have been bullied and have faced violence and myriad personal challenges.
Louw speaks candidly about losing the girlfriend she was dating when she started transitioning and losing other friends, family and a business. Through therapy she learnt that loss was part of the journey.
The highlight of her life is her two-year-old daughter. When Louw first started taking hormones she was on the wrong dose, but this ended up being a blessing in disguise because it later meant she and her partner could naturally have a child.
More recently Louw has also returned to the sports field. Three years ago she started playing with the Jozi Cats, a gay and inclusive rugby club based in Joburg. While playing socially for the Jozi Cats she tried touch rugby at the Gauteng Touch Association, and was selected to play for the mixed B team.
For both Mavundla and Louw their journey has come with pain, loss and what may seem like insignificant victories. A few years ago they were both still being called “sir” by bank tellers, cashiers and waiters. Transphobia and unwanted sexual advances often result in sexual assault.
“I think the biggest milestone, the biggest joy in my transition, is actually just getting to a point where I’m comfortable with myself now,” Louw says.
“There’s obviously things I still want to change. I’d love to buy a pair of boobs. I’d love a vagina. But I’m also content with where I am.”
Hating my body, hating being identified as male. It got very hectic … I was literally going to kill myself