The fight for identity

So, turns out that being trans is about a whole lot more than just hormones and/or surgery. Well, I mean, yeah – it seems obvious. But these are the kind of misconceptions that still run rampant in the world, and they’re myths that many of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to dispel.

For context here – it’s been about a year and three months since I started HRT. It’s nearly a year since I transitioned socially (with the exception of at work), and announced to the whole wide world that I was trans (yeah, I think next week’s post will be an anniversary post of sorts). It’s ten full months since I’ve been absolutely-totally-utterly “full-time”.

And it’s been fifty weeks since I had identity documents that were valid and accurate.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it kinda really is, and I’m going to speak about why.

Now, of course, my experiences are all within the context of the South African system – but trans people around the globe face challenges and delays when it comes to identity documents. The specific details may vary in terms of the time delays, the requirements, and the exact procedure involved, but it’s something that many of us run into at some or other stage.

Oh, and in case I haven’t said this before, it’s worth bearing in mind that giving trans people accurate identity documents reduces their suicide risk. Yes. Identity documents literally save trans lives. Scientifically proven fact.

May 2015. I’ve been on hormones for around three months. I’ve come out to just about everyone who matters. Transition is happening. Not just happening, but unstoppably so. After nearly thirty years of pretending to be something I’m not, I’m done with all that. It’s wonderful and exciting and amazing.

Except there’s a problem.

My identity document. It says on it that I’m a boy.

Well, actually, two problems.

Because it also has a boy’s name on it.

Three problems.

It has the wrong surname.

Wait-a-minute. Four problems.

Because my passport has all the same incorrect information.

Five, six, seven, eight problems.

My driver’s licence. My university degree. My professional registration with the medical board. My bank account. My retirement policy. My medical insurance. My vehicle registration. My income protection plan. My taxpayer registration. Even my fucking library card.

Do you see where this is going?

So it’s great that hormones are reshaping my body, and that speech therapy has feminised my voice, and that finally I can find jeans that actually fit, and that everyone reads me as female. It really is. It’s validating and reassuring and it feels so much goddamn better to be called “ma’am” than “sir”. But the only physical, tangible, on-paper proof of who I am undoes all of that.

Now, I say this a lot. I’m not ashamed of being trans. Sometimes I’m resentful about it, because there’s been a lot of pain and loss on that account. But I’m not ashamed. I’m secure in my womanhood, and I know I’m no lesser than any cis woman just because I was assigned something different at birth. Not just that I’m not ashamed, but I’m out. I mean, here you are reading my blog-about-being-a-trans-woman, with my name in big letters at the top. Maybe you follow me on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. I even have a book coming out soon. So yeah, I’m not really hiding. And I’m not trying to fool anyone. It’s no secret that Anastacia is trans.


Shameless workout selfie. To prove I do ordinary things when I’m not actively being trans.

But, I do all of that on my own terms. The blog, the social media, the book – all choices I made, on my own terms. My decisions. My choices. My power. I speak a lot about gender and sexuality and identity and trans stuff and all of that – but there’s a lot more to my life than just that. When I’m not working or teaching or writing about these things? I’m just another ordinary girl. I go to the mall. I buy toilet paper. Sometimes, I watch movies or eat out. I take walks. I work out. I go to the pharmacy. I have a life outside of gender.

In theory, at least.

Going to the bank with an old ID? I have to explain.

Getting on a plane? I have to answer questions, and endure glances, and wait for the security officer to fetch their supervisor. Every. Single. Time.

Pulled over by the traffic cops? I have to hope and pray that they don’t haul me down to the male holding cells because I don’t look like the photo on my licence.

Job application? I have to explain, on my cover letter, why my ID and certificate don’t line up with who I am. I have to out myself as trans to people I don’t know and will never meet, so that they can make judgments about me without even knowing me. I must have submitted my CV forty or fifty different times since I transitioned – to the public sector, to the private sector, to locum agencies, to corporates, to NGOs. You name it. I’m a damn good doctor, with a bunch of clinical experience and superb references. You don’t even need a full hand to count the call-backs I got. Because no-one wants to hire a trans doctor.

If I’m involved in an accident or I have a medical emergency? I might be totally denied medical care. Even for routine stuff, where being trans doesn’t make a difference. Where no-one needs to know. But, because of the gender marker on my identity document and medical insurance, I can’t just access care. I have to withstand the scrutiny and the potential prejudice.

Collect a parcel at the Post Office? Forget about it.

Everyday, routine, mundane stuff suddenly becomes impractical at best or utterly impossible at worst. Because the fact is, transphobia is real. Sometimes it’s overt and blatant. Sometimes it’s a lot more subtle. But people treat you differently once they know you’re trans. I’ve witnessed it first-hand, on so many occasions.

Do you know how exhausting it is to have to psychologically prepare for every encounter? To be ready with a giggle, and a bat of the eyelashes, and say “Teehee, I’m so sorry, I know the photo is old and doesn’t look like me” every single time I need to present identification? I have to be perfectly demure, and agreeable, and apologetic, because to behave in any other way is to court further hardship.

And, even if I manage all of that, at the end of the day, I still can’t find employment. I still can’t practise independently. I still can’t sign prescriptions or send statements, because there is a legal requirement for them to bear my deadname. I still can’t just be me. I still can’t just be.

May 2015. I spend days collecting all the necessary documents. Two doctor’s certificates, each stating that I’ve undergone medical gender reassignment. One from a general practitioner, and one from a psychiatrist. An affidavit, wherein I state that my deceased father was emotionally abusive, and that it distresses me to bear his surname, and that I wish to take my mother’s surname instead. An affidavit from my mother, stating that she’s happy for me to do so. A pile of birth registration forms, half labelled “OLD” and half labelled “NEW”, detailing the changes to my gender and my names.

I stand in a long queue in Home Affairs, inside a crowded a building, waiting to be called to the counter. There’s no privacy. There isn’t even anywhere to sit once you reach the counter; you have to hunch over it as you talk to the clerk. They ask me rude questions about what’s in between my legs. Loudly. So that the whole room can hear. I stand for a good fifteen minutes while the clerk fetches a supervisor to ask me the same questions again. Loudly. So that the whole room can hear, again.

They take my papers, eventually. They refuse to process both my gender amendment and my name change at the same time. Which helps me very little, because my deadname is so highly gendered.

I go to another Home Affairs office the next week to file for the name change. They ask me why I’m not doing my gender marker at the same time. I try not to roll my eyes.

Months go by. I phone every couple of weeks to check up on the progress. Every time, the call centre misgenders me after they look up the information. Every time, they tell me “your application is in fingerprints verification. Phone back in two weeks”.

September 2015. Someone phones me from Home Affairs. He says to me that a specialist psychiatrist doesn’t count as a doctor. I spend a futile few minutes trying to politely argue the point, before I eventually give up. He’s rude and confrontational, and he’s upset at me that my file – my entire identity, that my whole life has been put on hold for – is cluttering up his desk. I remain polite while my blood pressure soars and my heart rate spikes. I put down the phone, and draft another doctor’s letter. I know what they are meant to look like, because I used to write them for other patients when I could still practise. I phone up a friend from medical school and ask them if they’d mind signing it for me. I submit it to the Home Affairs dude’s email address before close of business that day. He never acknowledges receiving it.

December 2015. I have a new ID number. It doesn’t do anything, but I have it. And the gender is coded correctly. The call centre tells me that the application for my change of name is now starting to be processed, and that I should call back in two weeks. At least they don’t misgender me any more.

March 2016. The name change has finally been processed. According to the population register, I am officially Miss Anastacia Tomson. I can apply for a new ID and passport. I rush in to the office the very next morning, and fill out all the forms, and pay all the money. I’m told that the documents will be ready to collect in 5-10 working days. I can’t believe this is nearly over, after all the delays and the excuses and the suffering.

April 2016. It’s been 10 working days. 15 even. The call centre is impossible to get through to. Eventually I manage, and I’m told that my ID has been taken for “fingerprints verification”. Again. They don’t know how long it will take. Again. My file is still being pulled. But they’ll “escalate” the query and call me back. I’m given the exact same response when I call again over several days. My heart has sunk. So close, and yet so far.

I send a bunch of angry tweets out, about how Home Affairs doesn’t care about trans people. That we can’t work, vote, travel, or access basic services, because we don’t have IDs. I copy the minister himself in, and I beg everyone I know to retweet or post their own. A bunch of emails back and forth (well, mostly forth – because Home Affairs seldom replied). It takes another week before I’m told that the documents are printed, and being sent back to the office where I can collect them.

I rush off on Thursday afternoon to pick up the ID and passport. And the all-important letters from Home Affairs that confirm the changes that they’ve made.

Now, finally, with papers in hand, I can start seeing to all of the other things. The bank accounts, and the certificates, and the medical licence, and everything. There’s still a bunch of explaining to do – probably more so now than ever before. But, at least once the name and ID number attached to all of those things is changed, I won’t need to ever do it again. So it’s one more really awkward encounter at the bank, instead of knowing that every future encounter is going to be unpleasant.

There’s still a long way to go. And I’m sure a lot of these institutions and businesses don’t have experience in changing details as fundamental as an ID number. But hopefully they can manage to figure it all out. amidst the mountain of paperwork that I imagine they will require from me. The process might be tedious… but at least, I can get started on it all now. The end might not be in sight yet, but the beginning is, and I’m grateful for that.

The next day, Friday morning, a colleague sends me a text. “Oh my word, I applied last Thursday for a passport, and it is READY! What does one make of that?”, she said.

“Cis privilege, honey”, I answered.

So that’s my story. My name and gender marker officially changed, and I have the documents to prove it, a mere 50 weeks later. 50 weeks of anxiety and despair and awkward explanations and ugly stares and invasive questions. 50 weeks of being unable to freely work or travel or access services. And although my ordeal is ending, the system continues to fail so many trans people. So many still wait for their documents. And those who don’t want medical transition? Or who can’t afford to see doctors to get their letters? Or who reject a binary system that forces a marker of “M” or “F” on to everyone regardless?

For what it’s worth, the amendments I’ve had done are made on the birth register. And there is something comforting in that. In knowing that the erroneous assignment that was forced on me has been utterly undone, and that even my birth certificate will be accurate now. It feels like an injustice has been redressed. Not to mention that it feels like a safety net with the bathroom bill epidemic in the US, knowing that I will be spending three months there on a fellowship in the not-too-distant future.

I do hope that some day we will not have to struggle as much for our identities. In many senses of the idea, but particularly in terms of bureaucracy. I hope that trans people the world over will be able to self-determine their gender, that they’ll be able to change their names if they so wish, and that they won’t be left hanging without accurate identity documents for months on end.

I hope that cisciety, and especially policy makers and bureaucrats will learn to appreciate the true cost of living without ID, and that they will recognise that it is unacceptable.

I fought and suffered and struggled for my ID. The process brought me to tears, on many occasions. It felt like a never-ending torture, and there were many times I just wanted to give up.

I hope that it’ll be easier for the next girl.

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