Caitlyn Jenner: a platform for change

2015-06-02 13:33

Caitlyn Jenner stepped out from behind the veil of stigma, fear and misconception to reveal a striking woman ready to begin her life as she intended it to be.  Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner stole the spotlight on the cover of Vanity Fair, to embark on a journey of hope, tainted with ridicule, to be a woman and disregard heteronormative and patriarchal norms.

Consequently, her decision to transition from an esteemed Olympic male hero to a woman with a new identity has generated an outbreak of discussion on the topic of transgender.  She has confidently been able to provide a platform for transgender and transsexual persons around the world to be recognised in society and for us to address the inadequacies in our laws and policies that regulate the rights of transgender persons.  It has also forced us to reflect on our own perceptions and attitudes towards those that belong to the transgender community.

The term transgender can loosely be defined as an individual whose gender expression and/or gender identity is different from conventional expectations based on the physical sex they were born into.  The individual then has the choice to transition from their originally assigned gender identity to that of a woman or man, by undertaking surgical procedures and/or hormonal treatments.  An individual who has opted for the latter would be referred to as a transsexual.  The term transgender/transsexual encompasses a myriad of identities including cross-dressers, drag queens and many more variations.  The process to alter ones sexual orientation is a laborious one which requires copious amounts of money and support.

Caitlyn Jenner has the advantage of having the financial backing to undergo these procedures and treatments as well as the support of her family.  Many individuals in society will not have these options at their avail and often will go through life feeling detached, isolated and misunderstood.  In the absence of reality television money in the bank, gender reassignment surgeries are often extremely expensive and not covered by medical aid schemes as they classified as “elective surgeries” and are regularly excluded from medial aid coverage.  If you happen to live in the province of Gauteng, then you have three public hospitals to your avail that would be able to provide you with gender-affirmative services which is better than in the Western Cape which currently has one public clinic to assist transsexual women.

Despite revealing their feelings of disassociation with their assigned gender identity to their family and friends, their disclosures are often met with confusion and denial – condemning them to stay as they are.  But how can we blame close friends and family for not being as welcoming to the idea of their male figure being a transsexual.  In my view, it is easy to frown upon those who are openly disgusted by transgender persons unless we have experienced it personally.  It is a difficult reality to grasp the idea that your father, uncle or brother, who you once revered as the head of the household, enshrined with immense masculinity and manliness, wants to be a woman.  As a person who grew up in a firm African household where patriarchy and gender stereotypes reined, I would struggle with the idea that my father was now more inclined to wear heels as opposed to his generic slippers he brought proudly in Uganda.  Young children would struggle the most to adapt to the new idea and often will not understand the change and their parent no longer being referred to as a father or mother.

These personal concepts perpetuate the entrenchment of transphobia in our community as instead of being empathetic to our loved one, colleague or friend, we put our fears of what we do not understand before their own needs and wants.  It is not a choice that anyone would wish to have to make yet they are constrained to live in a manner that society has deemed to be normal in order to fit in.

The struggles of the transgender community are not isolated incidences that occur only in America.  In 2010, in the case of Ehlers v Bohler Uddeholdm Africa (Pty) Ltd (2010) JOL 26216 (LC) a transgender individual who had been employed at the establishment for almost two years, intended to undergo gender reassignment and was required to cross dress and function as women as part of her therapy.  She was retrenched from her job and the labour court held that her dismissal was based on the fact that she was a transsexual who was in the process of undergoing a sex change.  Her dismissal was automatically unfair and her employer was ordered to reinstate her to the same position that she had held before her dismissal.

Another example of the pressures of the transgender and transsexual community in South Africa was in Visser and another v 94.7 Highveld Stereo (2012) JOL 29227 (BCCSA) whereby a popular radio station referred to a person who had undergone a sex-change operation as “it”.  The Broadcasting Complaints Commission did not recognise the episode as hate speech in light of everyone’s right to freedom of expression as encompassed in the Constitution.  The case does outline the media’s role in propagating a positive outlook on the transsexual and transgender community and promoting equality for all persons in South Africa – despite their sexual orientation.

We are fortunate to live in a country where we have progressive laws such as the Civil Union Act which allows for the voluntary union of two persons to enter into civil partnerships.  At our aid, the Alteration of sex description and sex status act allows for transgender persons to modify their gender codes in their identity documents and birth register to reflect their newly assigned identity.  Additionally, we have the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination act which aims to prevent and prohibit unfair discrimination and harassment and consequently promote equality and eliminate unfair discrimination.  There are laws in place for not only transgender persons but similarly for LGBTI individuals that are forward thinking and liberal in comparison to laws in many of our fellow African countries.

Yet, there is still a lacuna in our laws and policies regarding the rights of transgender persons.  Even more so, there is still a gap in our thinking on how we should comprehend and accept those who are different.  It is also a difficult road for us to take by steering away from not caring about the Caitlyn Jenner’s in our world and learning more about the war she had to go through for almost 65 years.  Anyone should be able to undergo a sex change and be assured that they will not be discriminated against and that there is adequate protection in place that will not prevent or limit them from advancing in the workplace, familial responsibilities or personal lives.

There must be measures legislatively, administratively as well as internal policies which highlight the need to promote and protect the human rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  As it stands, there is not enough.  Whether you care about Caitlyn Jenner’s sex change or not, at least care that they are people battling through the same trenches of stigmatisation as Caitlyn Jenner in our country and all around you.

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