Home | Search | Contact Us
About us Projects Articles Resources Community FAQ Gallery
You are here » Home arrow Articles arrow General Articles arrow Transgender or detransgendered in Africa? Decrease font size Increase font size Default font size
Transgender or detransgendered in Africa? PDF Print E-mail

ImageThe African Regional Sexuality Resource Centre (ARSRC) invited Liesl Theron, director of Gender DynamiX to be their guest during the Beginning a Global Dialogue on Transgender Rights discussion. The meeting is hosted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force . The paper presented in New York on 17 April 2008 was extracted from this article.

Transgender or detransgendered in Africa?

By: Liesl Theron ©
17 April 2008


I am very thankful for the opportunity to present this paper, sketching the transgender landscape in Africa, with focus on working experience in South Africa.

This opinion report serves as my preamble to research I embarked on, which will be published as a chapter in a publication from a joint project between Gender DynamiX and the University of Western Cape. The information is derived mostly from personal experience, interviews and interactions.

By means of a short introduction about myself I will set the background to how it happened that I became the founder and director of the only transgender specific organisation in Africa. My involvement in transgender lives started as long ago as 1997, the year I was in a relationship with a transman for the first time. At the stage our relationship started he was living his two year real life test. He did his Gender Reassignment through Pretoria Academic Hospital’s “gender clinic”. At that stage the hospital was still known as the H.F. Verwoerd Hospital. Our relationship ended after 3 years and in 2004, when I relocated to a different province in our country I started a relationship with a transman again. With both relationships I knew from the onset that the person wanted to transition to male.

The difference in the second relationship was that we were in a different province from where my previous partner transitioned. But following the idea of the previous experience we tried to find information about the process in the Western Cape via Government Hospitals, where and who to contact etc. We had no success. Being the person I am I was not willing to settle for “NO” as an answer. We started searching at South African LGBT organisations for answers and equally unsatisfied we realised this will be a much harder journey than what we anticipated.

There was literally no information available in the South African context. We could not find any information about endocrinologists, plastic surgeons or mental health practitioners who are experienced in this field. Internet searches helped a lot, preparing one with information as to what one should know – but not in a South African context. At that stage we searched and realised there is a set of “guidelines”, formerly (and at that stage) known as the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care. We very soon realised that upon finding medical practitioners who are willing and able to help that to say the least – they do not know about the SOC. Or better, (and still the position today, 2008) different medical practitioners follow or are aware off different editions. Some psychologists will mention a two year real life test, where the next one will mention a year. In 2006 a psychologist in a small town in Kwa Zulu Natal told a transwoman: “These types of surgeries are not available in South Africa and besides it is illegal”

We were both members of the Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church, part of the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. I was a council member and the church council decided that we should present a workshop on Gender identity. That was in May 2005. In June 2005 my partner at the time and I went to the UK, to find out – first hand, from other LGBT organisations, Transgender organisations and trans support groups what is needed when starting a transgender organisation. My former partner was at that stage just coming out to himself as trans, not prepared to be in a public space about trans but realised that somebody would have to start an organisation.

In July 2005 I started working fulltime towards founding Gender DynamiX. Together with my ex-partners I had experienced firsthand the information vacuum for trans* people in South Africa. The website of Gender DynamiX went online in August 2005; we started with the selection process of management committee members in February 2006. In September 2006 we received our Non-Profit status from the Department of Social Development and in October 2007 Gender DynamiX received core funding for the very first time. Gender DynamiX managed to function for the first 2.5 years because of generous sacrifices of few individuals who supported us financially and otherwise. For 2.5 years Gender DynamiX functioned without an office, staff or salary.

According to the Gender DynamiX constitution we shall always have a minimum of 40% transgender management committee (board) members, striving for at least 50%. In October 2007 and February 2008 we employed 2 more staff members, both transgender people. Gender DynamiX has a few focus areas, such as advocacy and lobbying, information sharing to trans people, education and training – both for trans people, SOFFA’s, LGBT sector and general public. We have a media drive and reply on advisory requests from trans people about medical and legal matters. On an Ad Hoc basis we assist and refer legal cases. We support and encourage research in South Africa and Africa on African focussed trans expressions/ perceptions and transgender identities.

Great divide on continent

South Africa is regarded as the leading country on the continent when it comes to legislation, with our progressive constitution and leading on LGBTI rights. Since the end of the apartheid era, LGBTI rights are enshrined in our constitution – although people at grass roots do not necessary know how to access these rights. There are many contradictions within South Africa.

Africa as a continent is not Western. That being said South Africa can be found somewhere in between. One can almost be as bold as comparing South Africa to the “bisexual space on the continuum”. When attending Pan African conferences, workshops and forums as a South African one hears quickly from other African participants that South Africa is considered Western. Although, looking at indicators such as our exchange rate to other economies, incidents of Hate crimes, resources and opportunities – South Africa is very remote from the Western world.

When it comes to transgender issues, expressions and identities I find yet again a great divide as well as many similarities in what is happening. I will best describe it as multi layered. Possible access to services for transgender people looks better in South Africa, although it is far away from ideal. However, if one looks at issues of poverty and potential income, the costs that trans people have to pay for surgery is still unacceptably high. Especially when considering that medical insurances do not contribute and Government assistance is withdrawing support at an alarming rate. In a country where the, far and in-between, transperson might have an income to save over a number of years for surgery, or have a house to sell to use the money for surgery – there are almost no surgeons capable, willing, knowledgeable or interested in performing the surgeries. Although South Africa is  seen as the “resourced haven” in Africa by fellow Africans – once you are in the country you will quickly come to the realisation that  South Africa is not at all well resourced [as least definitely when it comes to access & services for transgender people].

I am aware of a growing number of people from different African countries who want to immigrate to South Africa in the hope of better opportunities and access in our country. I obviously refer here to access to recourses and opportunities in relation to transgender issues and transitioning. In a meeting with an official at the Refugee office of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs in Cape Town in 2006 the official related to me that they are presented with a growing number of refugee applications on the basis of sexual orientation. [I want to make a very important note here, and this can be discussed at a later point, but I would like to state here that I use the word “sexual orientation”, not due to my ignorance – but in a South African context. In this context any person not prescribing to heterosexuality or the male/ female binary is homosexual].

Trans in Apartheid era

In a conversation with a transwoman who is in stealth ever since her transition in the early eighties, I was informed of a complete different picture than what we experience today. She had her surgeries done in South Africa. One can almost be as forward as proclaiming the eighties as the “SRS hay days” in South Africa. Another transwoman who transitioned in the same time period claimed that people even came from overseas to have their surgeries here. Government hospitals were “sorted out” and the whole process was quite streamlined. You practically received your Identity Document and Passport within weeks after genital surgery. There was a former runner up to Miss South Africa who, according to one of the transwoman I spoke to, was a transsexual. The General public never knew this. A transman who I interviewed, who transitioned in the very early nineties also spoke of how efficient surgeries happened in “those days”. It puzzled me for quite a while to try and figure out the reason why the previous Government, the National Party was so forthcoming in the whole process considering their general conservative view point. In those years a person, embarking on transitioning was also advised by the psychiatrist to rather disappear after surgery. Actually cut ties with everyone they knew and relocate, preferably immigrate.

Maybe that also gives insight to my personal question: Why are trans role models “silenced” or not heard off in this country and why is it still such a silent community. Look at our constitution, freedom of speech and Human Rights. It raises more concern when one starts to look for possible answers to this. Personally I feel one can link it to programmes such as the Military of the old Apartheid regime’s Aversion Project, which used to “correct gayness”. There was a very clear viewpoint stipulated as how a “woman should be” “what a real man looks like”. Any person who did not fit into these norms was made to fit into the norms. There is also very limited documentation of “forced sex changes”. The GALA archives have a documented interview with a mother of a gay man, which had forced SRS performed on him, to make him “heterosexual”, who committed suicide later on. [I used male pronouns here, as he was a gay man, not transsexual, but by forcing him into surgery would enable him to still be in relationships with men. This was after shock therapy and the likes did not work] Part of the Apartheid era’s destructive work was also to remove people from land, relocate them to make sure they are not “mixing” with white people. With this displacement of whole communities, the whole legendary drag artist community of Cape Town’s now famous District Six was also greatly impacted. Apartheid not only left racial scars.


July 1992 was for trans people in South Africa another landmark date, stepping yet again backwards under the previous Government. It marked the cut-off date determining whether a person could still legally change their gender or not. Any person who applies with the Department of Home Affairs from that date onwards would not be able to change their gender on the Births and deaths register anymore. There was a window provided: if a person could provide proof that they were in their transition process, might that be consultation with psychologists, real life test or any part of transitioning, they could still apply.

Post 1994

On 4 December 1996 the Rainbow Nation’s constitution was approved and came into effect in February 1997. In writing everything was to be sorted out for South Africans. A magnitude of previously discriminated against minority groups were included in our Human Rights Bill. From this date on, one cannot be discriminated against on the basis of: race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth anymore.


Estian Smit, Simone Heradien and Sally Gross were 3 brave activists who worked endlessly to amend Act 49 in order to enable people to change their sex legally at the Department of Home Affairs in the births and deaths register without having gender reassignment surgery. This will imply that genital surgery will not be mandatory anymore. The task at hand involved research, having input from Professor Pierre de Vos from the University of the Western Cape, specialising in constitutional law and preparing statements and papers to present in Parliament. Amendment of Act 49 of 2003 was eventually approved and signed off by President Thabo Mbeki in the Government Gazette. Department of Home Affairs has yet to fully implement the act, 5 years later!

That is one of the areas of concern for Gender DynamiX, as we are repeatedly receiving reports from transgendered people who are unsuccessful in their applications to change their gender while not having proof of genital surgery.

Civil Union Bill and the exclusion of transgenders

Another liberal landmark for South African LGBT communities is the go ahead stamp of approval for the Civil Union Bill. The LGBT organisations and individuals rejoiced and celebrated upon hearing the news, but a very specific proportion of people were left out, and still have to experience discrimination against themselves with regards to this. When a trans person applies (after or during a transition process) to legally change their sex at the Department of Home Affairs and is still married to their partner, they have to get divorced. This small “technical” point was nowhere addressed in so careful drafting of the Civil Union Bill. Between the old Marriage act and the new civil union bill there is no provision for the transperson who was/is married under the marriage act and who is transitioning or has transitioned. Although the couple would be recognised as a same sex couple – they first have to divorce and then “re-marry”.

South African transgender landscape of today - organisational

Although the LGBT sector might view itself as having achieved some very important rights for LGB(T) people, they are at great disease to look in retrospect and analyse why transgender, transsexual and intersex people feel they are neglected by the sector and LGBT organisations. Most if not all LGBT organisations in the South African sector declare themselves as LGBT organisations, and more and more of these organisations very bravely take steps forward to start including the “I” to the acronym. I object to that, because I even object when organisations use the “T” in their acronym and are not able to cater and are incompetent to assist transgender and transsexual people when they phone in or ask for services. Some of the LGB(T) organisations were surprised when I mentioned once in a National meeting, prior to the Civil Union approval, that not all Gender DynamiX stakeholders will necessary theoretically benefit from passing the Civil Union. I was met with stares. Clearly indicating that some activists or organisations’ directors did not consider that there are heterosexual transgender people. If they don’t know these basics, how do they want to assist transgender clients? There are actually only a handful of LGB(T) organisations in South Africa that have some form of concerted effort to include transgender people in their programmes & projects. The mere existence of Gender DynamiX was “welcomed” with loads of subtle resistance and to certain degrees still is. That being said, there is South African and African LGBT organisations who are very interested in taking steps forward, embracing trans members and having trans programs and projects. In my opinion they are right by adding “T” to the acronym. If an organisation made a conscious decision to not include trans in their work spectrum they should have the courage to also take the “T” away from their acronym. Organisations should also evaluate their strategic plans, mission and constitutions. By including “T” how do they see the inclusion? Will they run transgender programs because pressure is on them to follow by action or do they fully embrace transgender by means of recruitment and leadership?

What language do we use – who is transgender?

How do you reach out to people who are not familiar with the jargon you are using? Trans people in South Africa and other countries in Africa do not necessarily use the same words, or when words are borrowed from Western ideologies, they are not necessarily understood and used in the same way.

A word I came across in Africa a few times is for example transvesti – similar to travesty used in Spanish, used in the same context as travesty. Victor Mukasa explained, during a Gender DynamiX board meeting in December 2007: “New words are slowly starting to be incorporated: nakuchus (referring to female) and sekuchus (referring to male). This was derived from the current word kuchus, which is in use for gays and lesbians in Uganda”. Victor is also the only trans person in Africa I met to date who self claims the pronoun che.

Quite awhile ago I introduced myself to a group of people in a township in Pretoria. I talked about transgender people and halfway through my introduction realised people were not en par with what I was talking about. I interrupted myself, and asked: “okay – so who knows what transgender is?” Absolute silence. I quickly realised I had to make a plan here or otherwise it will be pointless to proceed. I decided to let go of any learned, academic or political correct terminology and ask: “okay, is there anyone in the room who knows about people who had sex changes?” Everyone knew, and started bombarding me with questions. They were interested to know about procedures and hormones, breast augmentation and access to services.

I also discovered from conversations and personal contact with masculine identifying female bodied persons from Uganda, Botswana and Namibia that an identity that will be by Western terminology described as being transman or FTM, is being named by African counterparts as transgender lesbians. In this case, it looks to me like people, female bodied by birth but masculine, male identifying that they use the lesbian part of the self identifying term to honour their past. To acknowledge where they come from, and to indicate their sexual interest. They are not comfortable to refer to themselves as heterosexual transmen. They are also not considering using the word queer.

There might be many reasons, social, emotional and other, to this. During a weeklong Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) leadership workshop in Mozambique in February 2008 many conversations and debate happened around this. A transman from South Africa, who is also employed by Gender DynamiX, was also present at this leadership institute. He grappled to understand or identify with the concept of “transgender lesbian” as a self description for what is in his (and Western) mind rather than being known as heterosexual transgender or queer or a variety of other ways of self identifying.

A transwoman from Nigeria reported in the same meeting at a round table discussion about experiences from each person’s country, her disappointment when she realised gay men are not sexually interested in her anymore, when she passes as woman.

When doing research in the future in any African country, I would suggest to any academic or researcher to be very mindful of not ignoring the way people self define. “Solutions” to this different way of defining and expressing is not to be “corrected” by education or training in order to make sure the people know what we are asking and surveying in our questionnaires according to how we see it in Western terminology or “from the North”. I witnessed at the ARC Dialogue in December 2007 how this can be a potential conflict area.

Different experiences: What does it mean to be transgender in Africa?

In a “free association” exercise at a workshop in 2006 to participants, staff and volunteers from a mixture of LGB(T) organisations from South Africa, some participants “labelled” transgender as a “white man’s disease” as only “white gays and lesbians who have too much money lying around and want to take their homosexuality a step further can afford this”

18 men were arrested in Northern Nigeria in August 2007 due to a tip off to the police that they were cross dressers. At the time of the arrest, they were not cross dressed, neither had they any female attire with them. In a country where harsh punishments are given when convicted, being arrested on its own might be an unbearable to a life threatening experience.

From a transwoman who was jailed in Lagos in 2006: “The ugly incident ended up in a magistrate Court in Lagos, and I was subsequently jailed when I pleaded guilty to cross dressing and transgenderism. I had no lawyer to fight my cause. I have been behind bars for the past ten weeks and I can assure you that my ordeal has been more than dehumanizing. My hairs all shaved off with brutal force and with a blade which was as sharp as Lucifer’s instruments were my greatest pain. I lost it all, all the fancy hairs and glamorous effects. To my utmost chagrin, I was distransgendered and compelled to looking masculine at all cost. Jail has been hell on earth, in fact it was like a hellish visitation to the worst place you can ever be on earth. The miscellaneous details of my jail life...”

A Nigerian transperson’s experience in Ghana: “As a matter of fact, even in my recent sojourn in Ghana I have been prone to a hate attack and was badly beaten up and battered by some homophobic boys. I know that for the Female to Male trans this is less of a problem to them as they are not particularized on. The Male to Female trans are more vulnerable here...”

During one of the court hearings in Uganda, Victor Mukasa answered, when asked to describe about kuchus (gays and lesbian) being homeless: “...every answer was “Because I am a kuchu.  Kubanga ndi kuchu, sirina waakubera. Lwaki tolina waakubeera? Kubanga eka bangobayo. Lwaaki bakugoba yo? Kubanga oli  mukuchu.”  (Because I am a kuchu, I am homeless.  Why are you homeless?  Because I was chased away from home.  Why were you chased from home?  Because you are a kuchu.)  “You know, every answer to all your problems is because you are a kuchu.” “

I know a person who was born in Burundi. Her parents were very accepting of her being trans, from a very young age. She self-identifies as transvesti. Depending on resources and availability she sometimes made use of hormones and on occasion in the form of contraceptive pills. As a young person, when her life became difficult in Burundi she followed advise to relocate to Rwanda. She ended up forever travelling to various countries when her life at any given place became unbearable and in some cases life threatening. She became familiar with always being on the outlook. She was arrested, jailed, received punishment many times and was always looking for new places to move to. She tried to make a living between Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and eventually Kenya. She was finally deported from there back to Burundi – the country she originally fled from due to life threatening situations.

Most of the time she was safe at a given place until her gender identity somehow became known, then she had to move on. She was often a victim of extortion and could not trust anybody.  She was stripped of her dignity and privacy. The days in holding cells building up to the last time she was deported from Kenya to Burundi, were unbearable. More than once when she was arrested or in court she was cast as a freak in the media, she had no right to privacy and was forced to be on National television. That in turn led to future life threatening situations. It was a vicious circle, but she refused to “conform”.

On numerous occasions she was arrested and notified that she will be given the arrest charge when they decided what she was arrested for and detained her for a few weeks only to release her much later. On one such occasion, when she was been held in jail with no charge, she was notified that her dad died. She pleaded to be released in time for the funeral, only to be released the day after the funeral. No charge was made.

I am aware of an intersex person from East Africa who identifies as a transsexual man, recognising the fact that if he wants to survive in his community he needs to not only use testosterone, but would need chest surgery. In the unbearable heat and African sun he raised too much curiosity when he could not walk topless like the other men in the village. After years of searching for solutions, after he was sent for many sessions to be “de-demonized” he made contact with a transgender person in South Africa. He eventually travelled to South Africa in 2002 for his top surgery.

In most African countries the number one challenge proves to be access to medical services. Quoted from an activist in Uganda: “Even where there is a noted medical condition, such as intersexuality, most medical practitioners here enshrines their homophobia above their medical ethics. They refuse to treat or attend to transgender people. Sometimes tips to Police, which have led to arrests originated from doctors. The trans people in this country have resorted to self medication, whose long term implications are lethal to say the least”.


Where do people who identify as transsexual in African countries go to access hormones and surgery? Where does one start to liaise with medical practitioners who will, to take interest in transsexuals requests as patients? Who will take them in as patients, not only giving hormones but also make sure they receive important medical care, have regular blood, cholesterol and liver function tests? Who is looking after their mental and psychological well being in such harsh living conditions, where going safely through a day might be an accomplishment on its own?

African leaders deny the very existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people including any other terminologies or “Western known” descriptions such as homosexual, same – sex, and the list goes on. That is problematic for trans people, also because of the fact that no distinction is made between sexual orientation and gender identity. In August 2007 a woman was harassed and her shack was burned down by men from her village in Kwa Zulu Natal, merely because she was wearing trousers and “women should not look and behave like men”. According to my knowledge this woman was in all probability heterosexual and this was clearly not an issue of sexual orientation.

One of the most pressing urgent challenges I am aware of, when having contact with trans-identifying people from across Africa (and this includes in a distinctive different context South Africa) is the access to medical practitioners willing to assist. Access to information, legal rights and equal treatment in all levels of a person’s life is of utmost importance. In many African countries trans persons are not only suffering from lack of access to medical services – but are basically denied life in all forms. LGBT youth who are out at a young age are expelled from school. Equal opportunities in the presence of no or low education is not likely. Trans people’s existence is not recognised and they are excluded from all their life lines.

Most African countries still have some form of legal action, legislation and laws against homosexuality and sodomy (which includes all forms of being a trans person). A challenge will be to break free from these laws.

Extremely limited information is available in the medical, mental health and legal professions training curriculums - and information about transgender, transsexual, and intersex issues are completely excluded. Very few and far between professionals do self study or further training which involves these topics. On the whole continent of Africa, there are to date only two registered members at the World Professionals Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), formerly known as Harry Benjamin Association and that is Gender DynamiX (since 2008) and one more psychiatrist in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Another obvious challenge is to demystify, and combat negative stereo types of trans with public and the media across Africa.

Opportunities and recommendations

An organisation called Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of four LGBT organisations – Freedom and Roam Uganda, Integrity Uganda, Spectrum Uganda and Icebreakers Uganda launched a campaign in September 2007 called “Let us live in Peace”. This followed a lengthy trail in Uganda, when well known Human Rights Defender and activist Victor Mukasa laid a charge against the Ugandan Government for violation of Human Rights. Members of SMUG in Uganda initiated the first support group, other than in South Africa; focussing on trans. Working in collaboration with (Transgender Intersex Transsexual) TITs Uganda could be a starting point.

I also have recent reports from a transgender activist in Botswana who is in contact with 5 more trans people. Significantly enough, as we speak today, (17 April 2008) the very first ever transgender meeting is taking place in Namibia. 12 people will attend this meeting.

Deliver shadow reports at larger Human Rights conferences, forums and events – placing trans very specific on the agendas.

One of the most significant opportunities I see, outside the framework of research is to build relationships with organisations such as Action Health Incorporated (AHI) to enrich them with enough information to be a service delivery point for transgender people to receive counselling, assistance and HRT. Networks can be built to build capacity and knowledge between service delivery organisations in the States, for example Gender DynamiX and Action Health Inc.



Users' Comments (1) RSS feed comment
Posted by Charl Marais, on 31-05-2008 12:57, , Registered
1. Any resolutions?
This is a very interesting and informative paper which encapsulates the problems facing the transgender community of Africa, which includes South Africa. It wouldbe interesting to know how this paper was received in New York and what, if any, resolutions were passed.

Add your comment

mXcomment 1.0.4 © 2007-2008 - visualclinic.fr
License Creative Commons - Some rights reserved
< Prev   Next >

Online Community

Home | About us | Projects | Articles | Resources | Community | FAQ | Gallery | Search | Sitemap | Contact

© 2007 Gender DynamiX | Copyright/Disclaimer | Privacy Policy | Webmail Access (Staff) | Webmail Access (Users)
Gender DynamiX South Africa: The first African organisation solely for the transgender communtity. Committed to provide resources, information and support to transgender people, their partners, family, employers and the public.