The term “transgender” applies to individuals whose gender identity differs from the physical sexual characteristics with which they were born. This particular term only came about in the 20th century.
The dissatisfaction experienced with the biological sex that one is born with is referred to as gender dysphoria. It has a great impact on the emotional and psychological development of the individual and frequently leads to anxiety and depression. Gender dysphoria is normally evident from a young age and leads to many challenges for the growing child who finds it increasingly difficult to conform to societal standards. Socially, there are expectations regarding how female and male children should behave, for example, boys shouldn’t wear dresses or play with dolls. Children experiencing gender dysphoria learn from a young age that there is a part of themselves that must be hidden. In addition, puberty is often a very stressful period as it brings unwanted, gender specific changes to their bodies.
As they get older, transgender individuals are faced with many decisions that have to be made. Some will choose to keep their inner feelings hidden for fear of rejection and isolation. This has a huge impact on their emotional development. Others will decide to transition which is a life changing decision and is accompanied with many fears, such as fears of being rejected by family, friends and colleagues, of changing legal documents, of finding a partner, of enduring surgery and hormones and its impact on relationships. As so much of the territory they are entering is unknown, this decision can be extremely stressful.
Despite South Africa having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, the transgender community still faces many challenges. They are subjected to discrimination, stigma and prejudices and gender-based violence is prevalent throughout South Africa. Many of these crimes go unreported due to victims experiencing secondary trauma when reporting incidents at police stations.
Many cultures do not accept the transgender community resulting in them being ostracised by family and friends. Very often they are forced to choose between their culture and their gender identity.
In certain African countries, transgender individuals are openly condemned. In Uganda a bill was passed in 2013 stating that homosexual acts were to be punishable by life imprisonment.
Stigma and discrimination is also evident in our healthcare services, our educational institutions and in the employment sector. The constant threat of persecution and discrimination is a heavy burden to bear and has a direct impact on the person’s emotional, social and physical wellness.
Accessing public healthcare services is extremely difficult. There are only two centres that offer specific services for the transgender community. The one centre is in Cape Town and the other is in Pretoria. As gender reassignment surgery is not viewed as urgent, very little time is allocated to it, resulting in a waiting list of 26 years. This prevents many transgender individuals from receiving medical services.
Although there is support available for the transgender community, more education needs to be undertaken in order to eliminate discrimination and stigma. Living authentically according to one’s gender identity is extremely empowering and liberating and creates emotional wellness.
Published in Diverstiy Magazine – August 2015