Degree by degree

I waited a long time for an accurate identity document. 50 weeks, to be exact. I spoke about that entire ordeal in detail a few weeks back (and there’s also a rather poignant chapter on the intimidating process of applying for gender marker amendment at the Department of Home Affairs in my book, Always Anastacia).

Getting the document was a relief. It was the end of a struggle, of that there’s no doubt. But it was also the beginning of many more struggles. Because the ID had been the bottleneck – once it was in my hands, suddenly I could start the process of updating everything else. Bank accounts, medical aid information, insurance policies, my professional registration, the list goes on.

One of these processes started long before, however – that of my university degree.

(Note: I’m just going to say here that I acknowledge how tremendously fortunate and privileged I am to have a degree over which to fight in the first instance, when many of my trans siblings are denied the right to education, and lack the resources to pursue such)

See, being that I am generally rather pro-active and forward thinking and a go-getter (gosh, did I really just refer to myself as a go-getter? Who am I, and what have I done with Staci?), I got in touch with my alma mater at about the same time I applied for the changes to my ID. I told them that I was going to be changing my name and surname, and asked them what would be involved in amending my degree certificate to reflect the new information, once it was all processed.

Their response was… not exactly what I’d hoped for.

The impersonal reply from the institution plainly informed me that it was against their policy to amend certificates for any reason. They included a comparison between my situation and that of a woman whose surname has changed because of marriage (let me not begin now on the misogyny inherent in that system… I’ll save that for another day).

And they made the helpful suggestion that I should just continue to use my old degree, with my old name, and carry around with it an affidavit and a letter from Home Affairs, asserting that it is in fact mine.

You can imagine how that made me feel.

Or, actually, you probably can’t really. So let me break it down for you – you know already what they said, but here is what I heard:

You have to be tied to your deadname forever.

For the rest of your life, every time you need to present your certificate – for job applications, or to study further, or when going to conferences, or anything – you will have to out yourself, to complete strangers. And face all the attendant transphobia that comes with that.

Despite that you earned this degree, with your own effort and perseverance and damn hard work, we won’t acknowledge that it belongs to you.

You can never frame your degree, and hang it on the wall in your office, proudly displayed like thousands of your colleagues do.

Ok, by now you probably get the idea.

I was a little less disillusioned with medicine back then, truth be told. But that’s not really the point – no matter how dysfunctional my relationship with the medical establishment is, that qualification is rightfully mine.

rawlsphoto / Pixabay

But it’s more than the degree, or the piece of paper; it’s about my right to live with dignity and respect. The fact that I shouldn’t be forced into compromising positions, where I have to out myself, or offer lengthy explanations to strangers.

And it’s about a system that doesn’t want to recognise or support that right.

Of course, when I got the response, I was devastated. Especially knowing that there are other universities who had very straightforward procedures for amending the details on a certificate. I spoke to a number of different people in the relevant department, but met with very little compassion.

Now, you may not know this about me, but historically, I have never been very good at asking for help. That reluctance to reach out was one of my bad habits from pre-transition days that I have worked very hard to break.

I’m not going to go into the specifics, but around 6 weeks and a few lawyer’s letters later, the university saw the error of their ways, and agreed to make the requisite changes, once the ID was finalised.

So, one year later, I showed up at the University, my first time on campus in years, to drop off the original certificate, and all the supporting documents from Home Affairs. It was a very surreal sensation being back on that campus, knowing how much I had changed in all the intervening years.

Another month passed, and the certificate wasn’t ready yet. And I was getting a little anxious, knowing that I was soon to leave for the US for three months – and I desperately wanted to cross this item off my “to do list” before I left.

As it turns out, I finally managed to collect the document, less than a week before my departure.

My amended degree, and a full academic record, issued under my name. My correct name. My legal name. My name, and not someone else’s.

I still don’t know where I stand with medicine, to be honest. Whether I will ever practise again in the conventional sense remains to be seen. I miss my patients, and I know many of them (some of whom I’m sure are reading this right now) miss me. But the establishment is flawed, the system is sick and broken and twisted, and I do not know how to fix it.

Even if I do return to clinical practice, I’ll be saving one starfish at a time, while an entire beachful of them continue to suffocate around me.

13350329_10157137273610372_166314672374164687_oThese are decisions that are not to be made now. I can’t make them now, even if I desire to.

There’s an irony inherent there. Because in the preceding weeks and months, for the first time ever, my life is my own. It belongs to me, and I have agency over it. I live authentically, and I’ve had to overcome many challenges for the right to do so.

But at the same time, my life isn’t my own. The chaos and the unpredictability and the tumult that characterises it forces me to be adaptive and versatile. Much of that chaos has been spawned by my own transition. It goes further than that too, because my life is also not my own in that now I stand for others. I represent them. I have become a voice and a beacon, and there is responsibility that comes with that. I don’t claim to fully grasp it all – I wonder if I ever truly will. But it’s a choice I made, when I decided that instead of fading quietly into a peaceful new life, I would stand up and speak out.

I don’t know where this train is going. But I do know, with certainty, that it has left the station, and there is no getting off it now.

Either way, whatever the end point… I have a degree that I earned, with my name on it. And it’s something of which I am proud, and it’s something for which I am grateful. And I can only hope that the struggle in achieving that has made it a little bit easier for anyone who comes after me.

My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here.

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