A Reflection on the International Transgender Day of Visibility

By Greyson V. Thela, IAM Intersectional Process Coordinator

International Transgender Day of Visibility is a day set aside to recognise the existence of trans bodies, celebrate diversity,  as well as simply take up space! By taking up space, you recognize your right to exist and have and express your opinions without being apologetic about them. 

Legally, trans bodies have experienced significant advancements over the years, including the notable court rulings such as KOS and others v Minister of Home Affairs and the September v Subramoney, amongst other cases. 

However remarkable these advancements, advocacy is not only about systemic change, like allowing inmates to express their gender identity in prison, or challenging contradictions in the law around civil unions and gender identities, While systemic issues such as ensuring the existence of a gender inclusive restrooms are very important, it is also about changing minds and hearts. In reflecting on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, I take note of some areas where we have made strides forward, and still others where the challenges remain real and ever present.

A note on terminology

Equity and agency are integral for social cohesion and for a modern democracy. Freedom of expression, movement and association derive from one taking a hold of their agency and exercising it in a responsible manner. Equity refers to fostering  the realisation that not everyone starts life at the same point, with the same privileges and opportunities as other people. An example of this is cisgender privilege, where a person is born into a body that is congruent with their gender assignment at birth and can live accordingly, without any societal pressure, because they are able to conform to socially “acceptable” behaviour.  

At birth we are assigned a biological sex and gender based on particular societal norms. For many people the term sex and gender are interchangeably used, which we know is inaccurate.  Neither is gender inherently nor solely connected to an individual’s physical anatomy. Rather gender is based on societal belief-systems – what and how certain bodies ought to be socialised. Sex includes physical attributes such as external genitalia, sex chromosomes and internal reproductive organs. The latter is far more intricate. There is a complex interrelationship between an individual’s sex and internal sense of male, female or neither. Outward presentations and behaviours are referred to as gender expression. Sex, gender and gender expression; these three dimensions produces one’s authentic sense of gender. 

The term transgender is one of many terms used to describe someone whose gender identity is not congruent with the sex assigned at birth. Other terms used are trans nonbinary, transmasculine, transfeminine and queer. However, the terms transsexual, transvestite and hermaphrodite are not a politically correct. These terms do not provide the correct representation of trans bodies. They focus mainly on what trans bodies should be and should undergo from a biomedical perspective.  

Body politics refers to the various practices and policies which hold power in society to regulate human bodies and our individual and corporate experiences. These experiences are unique, intriguing, subjective and thrives on intersectionality such as access, agency and privilege. Aligning one’s identity is more reflective than assuming that you are fixing a problem. 

The passage of transformation is difficult

The disconnect and dysphoria starts with looking at the mirror in the morning, buying clothes and shoes built for your body. It continues with navigating life as you interact with other bodies – having an equal opportunity in a job interview; being in the army and knowing that your deployment will suit your restroom and privacy needs. Finally, living with the daily awareness that your gender identity may be one of the greatest dangers of all, physically and mentally. 

Transgender people experience high levels of unemployment, limited access to affirming spaces in both basic and higher education\ , incredible amount of homelessness, and high levels of mental illness. Adding to the complexity of our context, in South Africa asylum seekers do not have equal access to Act 49 and gender affirming health care due to their status as foreign nationals. The lack of inter-departmental implementation also affects trans and gender diverse prisoners, and has a huge impact on access to home and car rentals. The glorious part of the journey, however, is when you have achieved what you had set your mind to do. 

Advocacy has changed South Africa’s laws, but it is still an uphill battle

As South Africans we are privileged to have Act 49 of 2003 (Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act). This bill has been in existence for more than 15 years, and  provides access to trans and gender diverse persons to align their identities with their bodies. This can be through the change of name, gender marker and gender affirming health care. 

South Africans have a history of fighting for equity through transformation of laws. In June 1976, students fought against Bantu Education; in 2018 the fight for Tax Free Sanitary pads; and leading up to 2006, the right to solemnise all relationships through the Civil Unions Bill. Our historical shifts reflect an ever-changing democracy, able to accommodate an ever-changing world. Act 49 is one such law that has been changed through advocacy towards inter-departmental communication and implementation, which is very hard to attain. As noted, this law offers the mechanism to change one’s identity number to a new one that is issued to reflect a change in gender marker. Only after this change, the process to change degrees, driver’s license, passport, etc. can begin.  This process is tedious and may put a halt on one’s life. 

Navigating trans relationships push many people’s boundaries

There are some implications concerning matters of heart. Bodies, relationships and intimacy are socially constructed. Transgender bodies challenge the limits placed on love that is viewed as something that can only occur between one man and one woman. When love is viewed in this singular way, it tends to limit love, intimacy and self-interrogation about sexuality in general and for transgender people in particular.  When a cisgender heterosexual man falls in love or engages in intimacy with a transwoman, this does not mean that he is gay. Since, a transwoman is a woman and will remain a woman. 

However, internalised transphobia descends from being unable to reconcile with the fact that sexual pleasure doesn’t dictate sexual orientation (attraction), gender identity nor genitalia. An example would be a transgender man without Metoidioplasty or Phalloplasty surgery being in a bisexual relationship with a cisgender gay man. Understanding this concept needs one to risk (deep introspection), deal with the discomfort and ultimately move outside one’s comfort zone to where learning takes place. 

Ongoing vulnerability of many transgender bodies during crisis 

Globally we find ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 virus. To reduce the spread, the South African government has issued a nationwide lockdown for 21 days,  restricting movement to essential services only. 

While this period is challenging for all, the reality is that many South Africans will have to spend 21 days within the confines of their homes, confined with their perpetrators in toxic family situations. Wellness and self-care is packaged differently for victims of violence, who are living with their perpetrators during this period. For some this means that no contingency plans have been put into place to support and assist. 

This lockdown period has increased the vulnerabilities of trans bodies whilst navigating spaces that should be safe but are not always so. The increase in visible policing highlights the precarious situations that trans bodies often find themselves in. Living with the constant awareness that they might be asked to produce a license and identity document for verification purposes means that they frequently have to explain their existence to law enforcement because of the contrast between body and identity document. Anxiety is a constant companion for many trans persons around the world in a time when there is so much confusion over how the restrictions are enforced, like in South Africa where a couple was arrested on their wedding day irrespective of having fewer than the 50 guest limit.  This has direct implications for search, seizure and arrest. Queer bodies are in danger of being imprisoned and placed in the dangerous position of sharing a cell with a cisgender man.  

We are aware that we live in a world that needs radical protocols at times to maintain life and the continuity thereof. However, human dignity should be at the centre of change when it concerns society as the implications are great. We are a growing nation, a growing population faced with many challenges. We have achieved phenomenal milestones, with many that lie ahead. The secret ingredient will always remain in consultation and representation.