Women’s Month celebrates women from many walks of life, but those on the fringe are often forgotten.
Trans women are often excluded from women-only spaces or women’s movements. With ongoing violence, stigma and denials of opportunity faced by trans women worldwide, YOU spoke to two South African trans women, Zoey Black and Elana Ryklief about their journeys and experiences.
Zoey Black (32) is a transgender woman working as a legal and educational officer at GenderDynamiX, an organisation that champions transgender rights and access to legal gender recognition, gender-affirming health care and inclusive education.
Her coming-out was a difficult time which she remembers clearly.
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“It was a really difficult time for me, I
remember where I was so vividly,” she says. “I was in the bath scrolling through
YouTube videos and I came across this channel that was run by a gender
therapist who had asked a number of questions around, ‘How do you feel about
your body and how do you feel about your identity?’
“A lot of these questions made sense to me, and they said, ‘ Well if you’re experiencing some of these things, there’s a possibility that you might be trans’.”
This was her moment of realisation.
“I said to my partner at the time, ‘Babes I think I’m trans,’ and that was it for me.
“It was such a powerful moment for me, it was really profound because suddenly I had a vocabulary to describe or to articulate how I felt about myself and explain my experience, that I’d been feeling my entire life.”
Zoey later came out to her family and friends. Her family was supportive, but, she says, there were people in her life who were not.
“That is something you have to deal with when coming out as trans, but I dealt with it and I really invested in the relationships that supported me and relationships I wanted to invest in and support other people in,” she says.
Elana Ryklief (25), an English masters’ student, said she had incredible support from her family and friends, which she realises is very rare.
Elana began her transitional journey in
2018, as “a sort of a birthday gift to myself. I was working as an intern back
then and I could afford to do it privately,” she says.
Transition through the private health care sector is often at personal expense, and it is often not an option for many trans people.
Transgender individuals who can’t afford to transition privately can get assistance from specialised units at Groote Schuur Hospital’s Transgender Unit, the Steve Biko Academic Hospital and Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.
“It’s not easy to fund a medical transition yourself, especially having to often meet certain requirements in the private sector,” she explains, adding that “not all trans women have the support or are independent enough to aid access to trans services”.
Transgender individuals often face discrimination when their documentation doesn’t match their appearance.
Speaking to Careers24, one woman said that Home Affairs officials had withheld her documentation for more than three years after she applied for a change of her sex description.
“Most of the processes were very quick and effortless for me, from starting hormone therapy privately and moving over to public services, as well as changing my name and gender marker went smoothly which I am happy about,” she said.
“The only major stumbling block that I had was with some institutions which would not recognise my expressed gender, because I didn’t have a letter from Home Affairs saying I was changing my name and gender. When Home Affairs doesn’t issue this letter it makes things difficult,” she said.
“In combination with the pandemic, it restricts access to services for trans people. It has been quite difficult, but we persevere, and we wait until lockdown levels go down.
There are many other obstacles faced by trans peoples, from ridicule to physical violence, says Zoey.
“Trans people experience extreme hostility and violence just for being who they are,” she says, adding that she was “very scared to go out in public, as people would mock me and ridicule me. There were times when I was assaulted, there were times when I was threatened with murder - it was an incredibly hard thing to bear. A part of me dealing with that was talking about it about being vocal about my experience and therapy really helped me deal with, not just my identity, but dealing with all these external things that were blocking me from living a safe and normal life.”
For a long time, Zoey didn’t celebrate Women’s Day. The lack of trans stories and representation made it hard for her to relate to it.
“I recognise the history that Women’s Day comes from and I do, in my own spaces, pay homage to those women who marched on that day. Women’s Day and Women’s Month has given us opportunities to pause and look at where women are in the country today, what our positions are, how we are represented, how far we’ve come, and the struggles we still to face.”
Check out Zoey's latest video below: