On 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville, police officers opened fire on a crowd of some 7,000 black demonstrators who were protesting the pass laws which required black Africans to carry a Dompas at all times while traveling. 69 died and 180 were injured.
Today we have a constitution that empowers people with the right to freedom of movement, dignity, and equality. So we commemorate this day in 1960 and celebrate the Bill of Rights which remains the cornerstone of our democracy.
While it’s important to celebrate this achievement, it’s also important to recognize that we have so many shortcomings in terms of our legislation, social structures, and individual prejudices that make it incredibly difficult for vulnerable groups to access their basic human rights.
For me, I’ve experienced a spectrum of discriminations from my friends and family, from the lady at the till at the supermarket, and from the very institutions that are designed to protect my rights as a transgender woman.
Living as a transgender woman is particularly difficult when it comes to having to engage people you don’t know. People constantly feel they’re entitled to details about my body. I’ve been asked by random strangers while standing in a queue about what I have between my legs. “Like WTF???” And this happens regularly. Somehow my privacy and dignity go out the window just because I’m trans.
(The irony here of talking about the intimacies of my life on the internet.)
Even though our constitution validates having a gender identity different to the sex you were assigned at birth, accessing essential services is still problematic. Being trans and wanting to undergo a medically assisted transition requires a access to, well, medical assistance, to healthcare. Something which I was blocked from accessing at virtually every turn. When I was looking for information about and wanted to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT), I contacted a number of GPs, the majority of whom declined to help me because “We don’t do that sort of thing here”.
Our public healthcare system only has two trans-specific facilities, one at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town and the other at Steve Biko Academic Hospital Pretoria. This means that if you live anywhere outside those cities, it can be extremely difficult to access gender affirming healthcare. And even more so for those living in poor economic and social conditions. Even if you live near these centers, the number of hours dedicated to gender affirming surgeries is so sparse that the waiting list is over 25 YEARS.
Healthcare for me, as a trans person, is alienating and scary.
Part of living authentically as a woman, for me, is to have my official documents accurately reflect my identity, just like every other person. One such thing is changing your name. Now, while I have no direct experience with the following (I do plan on changing my legal name soon), I have read extensively and spoken at length about this topic with people who have done it, and it seems pretty straightforward. However, officially changing your gender is a monster on its own.
If you have a look at your South African ID number, you’ll see there are thirteen digits. These reveal some details about you…
Example person x with ID number 9901025055081
The first six refer to their date of birth YYMMDD (9901025055081). The following four digits define their GENDER (9901025055081). Yes, there is a gender marker in your ID number. Female is 0000 – 4999 and male is 5000 – 9999. The next digit shows if they’re a permanent resident 1, or a South African citizen 0, 9901025055081. I’m going to skip the second last digit 9901025055081 and come back to that shortly. The last is a checksum digit that just basically checks if the number sequence in their ID are correct 9901025055081.
In short, this means that person x was born on 2 January 1999, is male, and is a South African citizen.
Now, back to that second last digit, 8. This number was used to indicate the person’s RACE. That’s right, ID numbers used to have racial markers, at least until they removed it in the late 1980’s. You can read the Population Registration Act, Act No 30 of 1950 for a more detailed understanding of these racial classifications.
I bring this up because, given the history of our country and context in which we find ourselves, having a racial marker in our ID number amounts to racial profiling, which is not in line with the constitution as the state or any person cannot unfairly discriminate against anyone on the basis of their race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
If racial markers are inappropriate for officially classifying people, why do we find gender markers acceptable? If racial profiling is unconstitutional, shouldn’t gender profiling be treated the same? Should we not then remove gender from ID numbers just as we did with race?
Having these conversations can be difficult because it forces us to confront the inherent prejudices in our law, society, and in ourselves. And changing these can mean an uprooting of current structures and ways of being that are comfortable.
Some trans people may choose to officially change their gender, and our law recognizes and makes provision for this. It can be especially frustrating due to the bureaucratic processes we know to be problematic at the Department of Home Affairs. The legislation states that
Any person whose sexual characteristics have been altered by surgical or medical treatment resulting in gender reassignment may apply to the Director General of the National Department of Home Affairs …
with the term gender reassignment here defined as
… gender reassignment means a process which is undertaken for the purpose of reassigning a person’s sex by changing physiological or other sexual characteristics, and includes any part of such a process …
This bit of legislation acknowledges that gender reassignment is not limited to changes made to ones genitals and is a process rather than a singular event. While this law makes provision for the rights of transgender people, you still need 2 separate letters from 2 different qualified medical practitioners who must confirm that you have had gender reassignment. In addition to these requirements, there can also be major blocks in the implementation of the legislation, resulting in the issuing of ID documents which reflect the persons correct gender taking up to a year.
In Ireland, you can legally self-determine your gender without state or medical intervention. This means that all you need to do is fill out a two page form, hand it in, and get your gender recognition certificate. Done. And life goes on.
Putting that in contrast to our “progressive” constitution, I find myself wondering why the state feels it needs to regulate how I self-identify. And suddenly my ID document feels very much like a Dompas, very much like I have to explain myself wherever I go.
There are so many hurdles when it comes to making basic human rights accessible to trans people. We are one of the most vulnerable groups and face an onslaught of discrimination every day. It seems we need to take stock of how we see and engage minorities and vulnerable peoples in this country. And rethink what these rights mean for those other than ourselves.
Because they’re human rights. For ALL humans.