Last week, we recognised the Transgender Day of Visibility.
It’s… a tricky sort of concept, visibility. So much of what I do is centered around it, and I believe that it’s potentially so important, but at the same time so very limited.
The thoughts that I posted about this on Facebook, as well as a handful of self-indulgent selfies, can be found below.
But I’m going to talk a bit more about the concepts, through the lens of my own lived experience. The disclaimer applies, as always – YMMV.
So there was a time when I didn’t know what “trans” was. Actually, a really long time. Some of that had to do with my sheltered childhood, during which I had to spend a lot of my energy worrying about other things instead of figuring out my gender identity. I had so much else to think about, that the residual energy was sufficient only to reach the conclusion that “I’m different and I don’t fit in”, but not to take me much further than that.
Of course, it didn’t help that I thought sex and gender were one and the same and that if you were assigned male at birth, it was your destiny to live a male life. And, if it didn’t fit, well that’s just unfortunate – what did I know of transition?
And, I’m embarrassed to say it, but even after I became aware of concepts like “transsexuality”, I suffered under all the same misconceptions that so many people still do today. I didn’t understand the idea, I didn’t know where it all fit in, relative to sexuality and sexual orientation, and I thought that every transsexual person followed about the same pattern in their personal narrative.
Obviously, I know now that all of that was bullshit.
But, for the longest time, I didn’t even consider the possibility that I could be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual, even though I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. It’s a weird dichotomy – to know that you really don’t fit in somewhere, but to fail to consider there are other things that might fit better.
I often wonder if it might’ve been different, if I’d had the tools to think about these ideas earlier. If I’d had the energy, and the capacity to reason, the desire to question the status quo, and the representation or the visibility of what trans actually was.
I would have loved to transition sooner. I would have loved not to have experienced the wrong puberty in the first instance. I would have loved not to spend years of my life trying to be something I’m not, just because I didn’t know any better.
I don’t know how my life would be different if any of that had happened. Maybe I’d be less empathic, or maybe I’d be less of an activist. Maybe I’d be more of a bitch (ok fine, I’ve already maxed out on that one). Maybe I’d be, by now, where I wanted to be with my body, instead of still battling off dysphoria on a constant basis.
That rabbit hole is a difficult temptation to resist, even though no good can come of it.
I don’t know what things are like throughout the rest of the world – at least not firsthand. All I have to go on are the reports I get and the stories I hear from friends, contacts and colleagues in other countries, or what I read in the media. But what I do know is that South Africa, at least, still doesn’t get it.
Despite our relatively progressive legislation (which is good, but it’s not the best in the world), South Africa still isn’t a great place to be trans.
If you can’t afford healthcare in private, you get to choose between three different state-funded clinics that provide gender-affirming care. Three. For the entire country. And, some of the doctors in these clinics still insist on using antiquated protocols and guidelines, some of which are downright abusive to patients.
If you can afford private healthcare, there’s a good chance that your doctor will refuse to treat you – either because they’re clueless, or because they think you’re some sort of depraved and immoral freak. Some of them will treat you – but they’ll do it irresponsibly and unsafely. And you’ll pay a fortune for it.
Then, if you want to update your gender marker, you have to endure a humiliating experience in front of insensitive and under-trained clerks at Home Affairs, provide proof of having undergone some kind of medical gender reassignment (and the definition of acceptable “proof” changes frequently and arbitrarily!), and wait like a gazillion months for it to be done.
If you need to change your name as well, you can add another half-a-gazillion months on top of that, and possibly one or two sworn affidavits.
We have a whole bunch of legislation that protects against discrimination on the basis of gender identity… but that only works in so far as the discrimination is open-faced. Sure, there are still some people who will lose their jobs, for example, because they transition – and the law offers them some degree of protection. But a far more common scenario is being unable to find employment in the first instance when you’re trans – especially if your legal documents (or lack of appropriate ones) force you to out yourself before you even make it to a job interview. No one will ever tell you that you’ve been turned down because you’re trans; rather, “the position has been filled”, or they “found a better candidate”, or “you don’t match our needs”, etc etc.
In practice, people on the ground are still very close-minded and prejudiced. While there are some pockets of liberality and progressiveness, there are no shortage of people who will openly express their contempt for anyone who isn’t cis. For the most part, I avoid that in my day-to-day life, because people read me as cis. But I have no shortage of friends and acquaintances who’ve had slurs shouted at them in public, had security called on them when they try to use a restroom, or who have even been locked up in holding cells (and, of course, in cells belonging to the wrong gender) because an insensitive metro cop doesn’t “buy into that gay shit”.
A lot of these people would hate us anyway, even if they knew better. Because they’re bigots and their hearts, if they have, are consumed by hate. But there are probably a whole bunch out there who just don’t know any better. They don’t know the terms and the concepts and they don’t understand what “transgender” even means. But maybe they have the capacity to?
Maybe if they knew enough, they’d understand the rational argument that we don’t present a threat, that we are not to be feared, that there really is no reason to hate us or to commit violence against us.
And not just that, but there are also a bunch of trans people out there who think that they’re alone. Some of them don’t know that they’re trans; like me, they think they’re just oddities who will never fit in. Some of them do know that they’re trans, but they don’t know that there are other trans people too, or they don’t know that there is help and support available to them.
Not a week goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from someone who has come across my website saying just that – that someone thought they were alone, that they are so glad that they aren’t, that they want to find support.
So yeah. Part of my life I live very openly – here on the blog, on social media, you name it. I speak honestly about a whole bunch of painful and personal things, and sometimes it takes a lot out of me. It’s even getting to the point where I can’t sit down at a local restaurant with a friend for dinner without someone recognising me.
But those were choices I made. And these are the reasons I made them.
I know visibility isn’t everything – and it’s foolish to suggest that it is. We have to push for more. We need to be understood, we need to be treated with dignity, we need to have our human rights protected. We need access to healthcare and social services, we need equal opportunity, we need hate crime to become a thing of the past. We need to stop being killed, or being made to feel so unwelcome, so abandoned, so devoid of love and support that we kill ourselves.
Visibility is just a starting point. It’s one piece of the puzzle. And on the flip-side, no trans person (myself included) has a responsibility to be visible.
Visibility isn’t all that I do to try make things better, but it is part of it. And I make myself visible of my own free will, and on my own terms. There’s a price to pay, but after all is said and done, the choice was still mine to make.
And it’s one that, at least for now, I don’t regret.
A photo posted by Anastacia Tomson (@anaphylaxus) on
A photo posted by Anastacia Tomson (@anaphylaxus) on