Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Caster-gation Of The Rainbow Nation

For those who don't know me, my name is Christina Engela and I am a transwoman - or if you will, a transsexual woman. What does that mean exactly? Now that we have the support-group greeting out of the way, let me explain.

Once upon a time there was a little boy who always felt that - somehow, inside, he was actually a little girl...

To the world I was a little boy, who liked dolls and girly things and who was awfully confused by the way girls were treated differently to boys - and who clearly did not want to be included with the boys. I learned very early on that little boys who were soft and effeminate were frowned upon - and were given a very hard time. The world didn't understand who I was, and quite honestly, for some time, neither did I. And that is the really sad part - because the subject of gender and transgender is so taboo in conservative society that the only way to find out who you are as a transgender person is to figure it out for yourself. I was 26 before I even really fully understood who and what I was. And when I learned the truth, I grabbed onto it with all that was in me.

When I was at high school in the late 1980's, I didn't know much about "sex change" - I just knew what it meant in broad terms - turning the male body I was stuck with, female to match who I was inside. Truth be told, I was freaked out about it myself - I thought I was gay and I had major issues - particularly religious ones, accepting who I was too. To make matters worse, whichever way I turned, I faced ridicule and intolerance - and was told I was "evil" and "going to hell" for my "perversion". I toughed up and put on muscle, I was often bulled at school and thereafter, I even won a few fights. I tried to find a girlfriend to "prove" my masculinity. I tried for years to fit in and "be normal" - I went to the army and was even married for three years. I took up building vintage cars as a hobby to prove how masculine I was. Yes, once upon a time this chick used to be a judge at the annual Beetle Parade in Uitenhage, and if I hadn't changed (and if I were by some miracle still living) I would probably still have been up to my armpits in rusty VW spares.

In the end, the torment was too much and I had little choice but to face my true nature. I had no choice but to stop lying to myself and to the world and to come out as transgender. I have often pondered the irony that people love you for lying to them and keeping up false pretenses - but the minute you reveal yourself and start being truthful and honest, they reward you with hate and banishment. It wasn't easy, and it was anything but clean. But ten years and three operations later, I am here, whole and complete - and without regrets. I have never had the need to look back, as facing facts is what finally freed me. We are what we are, I didn't make myself and neither did other people, so how can others blame people like me for being transgender? People who do, obviously do not know themselves - or what they are talking about.

For me the struggle for equality and civil rights of the pink community is all about fact versus fiction. The moment fact replaces all the hateful fiction used against us, there will be no more reason for those who hate and oppose our equality and civil rights, to continue doing so.

The clinical definition of being transsexual defines the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexual orientation explains a persons attraction to partners of either the same or different gender - i.e. hetero - "different" and homo - "same as". Gender identity is not about sexual orientation, it is about self image and personal identity. Do I see myself as male or female? Everyone has a gender identity, the issue only becomes relevant for the individual when this gender identity differs from their physical gender. There is mounting evidence that this condition is caused by genetics or hormonal exposure as a foetus in the womb - or a combination of both. Are transsexual people gay? Yes and no. Since gender identity is a separate issue from sexual orientation, a transsexual person CAN also be gay, but hopefully now, you will see this is a separate matter.

The thing people should bear in mind is that I am the same person they all knew before, just that the outside now more correctly matches the inside. Think of it as a logical continuation of the old saying: "I'm going to slip into something a little more comfortable."

After all that, I am sure you will see why I find the Caster Semenya matter so interesting.

If there is one thing I can say about this athletics gender-debacle of the past week or so, it is this: I know now who Caster Semenya is - in fact I am sure the whole world knows her name - butWHO were those other two athletes again? And were they men or women? If anyone else besides her is peed off about this drama, it has to be them. Whoever they are, of course.

I saw them on TV, while the camera's briefly panned away from Caster to show the rest of Team South Africa, sitting there looking apporopriately sullen while all the attention was focused on her during the political grandstanding going on. Why all this fuss about whether or not Caster is a girl or a guy - or even transgender? Is it her flat chest? Is it her voice? Or is it just because she won? Do the folks who have been accusing her of being transgender even know what they are talking about? I wonder.

I noticed Caster's discomfort before the cameras, especially with the ANC YL's poster-boy Julius making insensitive comments about how "obvious" it is that Caster is a girl - when the whole world has seen how ambiguous her appearance truly is - and heard her voice on live radio and TV. He only compounded his folly by trying to make it all about race, just as he does everything else. The comments made in papers and on the radio about the press not asking her direct questions on the matter make me squirm. I know the feeling firsthand. How many times when I was first transitioning and fairly androgynous in appearance, did people ask me direct and personal questions about my gender, sexuality and quite often harrass me,
especially on religious issues? I know how it hurts when you try so hard to get your appearance to match your identity and hurtful people insist on calling you by gender-inappropriate terms - and then make it all YOUR fault.

I remember the occasions when my colleagues made jokes about me, calling me a "double-adapter" in my presence, as though I were not even in the room. I remember one senior woman at work who took away my desk and chair to give to some FNG in my department to use - and when I asked her what I was supposed to sit on, she replied that she didn't care a damn if I sat at all - and don't think the new guy declined the office furniture upon seeing my discomfort. Yes, I am no stranger to prejudice. But those were the days before I started fighting back. Were it not for my thick skin, sense of humor and my sharp responses, I might have cracked up under the strain. I sympathize with Caster, regardless of her sexual orientation or gender identity. I freely admit I wouldn't have thought she was female by her appearance or her voice. I am the last person to criticize her for her voice, I still hesitate to make phone calls because it is the quickest way for me to get called "sir" - which I admit, still stings a bit. But even so, there is no law which makes a woman with a deep voice a man, simply because of her voice - otherwise Bea Arthur of "Maud" and "Golden Girls" fame would have certainly raised her voice about it.

All arguments aside about Caster's gender and results of tests yet to come - the signifigance of Caster Semenya for me as a trans woman, is the now increased awareness of the gender issue which this debacle has raised. Over the past week alone there has been an almost continual commentary by 5fm DJ's on the topic - some flattering, some not - and transgender people have been interviewed on live radio shows to explain what being transgender is all about. The public has been reading up on the subject online, asking questions, talking about it. Seeking the truth.What is gender? What makes a man or a woman male or female? Is it a choice? Is it wrong? And most importantly, where do THEY fit in?

I am happy to see the improvement between last year and this year in terms of attitude of the South African public and in terms of support for Caster and clearly showing a more accepting atmosphere. In a country where gay men and women and transgender people - in fact anyone who defies or challenges the defined traditional gender binary - face violence and "corrective rape", this is refreshing indeed.

If only the ANC government - which carries a reputation for leading a country with the most human rights oriented constitution on Earth would live up to that reputation - and make more visible attempts to end such hate crime in other areas of South African society as well, and not just where they can score a few brownie points ahead of the Soccer World Cup. If only they would support the pink community's equality and civil rights, instead of making alliances with groups that threaten it.

As a matter of interest, in the Sunday papers this last weekend, I noted a comment by a columnist which said something to the effect that if South Africans had shown as much tolerance and acceptance a year ago as they have for Caster, then Eudy Simalane, Captain of the women's national football team (who was raped and murdered for being lesbian) would still be alive today - and I have to admit, I find the irony in that comment striking and most revealing of all.

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