Caitlyn Jenner, who almost broke the Internet yesterday when she came on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, is making us all think about what it means to be transgender. The reality television star’s transition from Bruce Jenner (a former Olympian and husband) into Caitlyn has made world headlines.
We wanted to get a better understanding of what it means to be transgender, especially for a young South African. We spoke to 26-year-old Mieke, who prefers not to share her surname. She started her transition from male to female using hormone replacement therapy in May 2013. Mieke, from Mpumalanga, has been living as a woman since November 2013, and has been documenting her journey on a Youtube channel, Mieke – Transgendered in South Africa. She spoke to us about what is means to be transgender and shared her thoughts on Caitlyn’s cover.
Live SA: What do you make of Caitlyn Jenner’s story and transition?
Mieke: It’s very brave of her to come out with her transformation so publicly. I know how difficult it is to transition, so for her to do it with the public watching is very brave. The media has handled the story very well. When it was still a rumour that Caitlyn is transgender, the media and public were very insensitive, but now everyone seems supportive and, most importantly, respectful.
Live SA: How do you define transgender?
Mieke: People who identify as transgender feel different from the gender they were assigned at birth. One feels that they are “born in the wrong body”, and have a strong urge to live as the opposite of one’s birth gender.
Live SA: How did your family react when you came out as transgender?
Mieke: I was raised in a conservative household. Our family was loving and close-knit. When after high school I came out as gay, they took it well, and accepted me as a gay son and brother. However, they couldn’t understand why, years later, I came out as trans. In their eyes, I was destroying my life, and they didn’t want to see me do that, or embarrass them. In the end they disowned me, and it’s been over two years since I last spoke to any of my parents or siblings.
Live SA: What are some of the challenges faced by the young and transgender?
Mieke: Young people who want to transition are faced with financial constraints. Transitioning is very expensive; the doctors appointments, hormone replacement therapy, blood tests, psychologist and the costs of surgeries. The costs depends on the route you take, at first I had to pay R5 000 for the doctor’s appointments, psychologists and the blood tests. Now, I have to take hormones for the rest of my life, which cost R2 000 every month, so for most it is simply impossible to fully transition. Another big problem is getting your ID changed to fit your new gender. It takes months, sometimes years. During this time, you can’t do normal, everyday things, such as running to the bank, opening an account, or even just driving, because your driver’s licence does not match your new appearance. Before I had my documents changed, which took eight months for me to receive, I had to explain myself to every person who had to look at my ID. It is embarrassing having to explain something so personal to a stranger, and hearing what they think of it or having to answer inappropriate questions in public.
Live SA: What are some of the preconceptions you encounter?
Mieke: They are divided into two sections. Those who think I’m a gay guy who likes to dress up as a woman and those who will only accept a trans person as their new gender once they’ve had gender reassignment surgery. The most irritating, and common question people ask me once they find out I’m trans is: “Have you had the operation yet?” As if that defines whether I’m a woman or not.
Live SA: What is the one thing you wish people knew about being transgender?
Mieke: We did not choose to be trans. We don’t transition for the fun of it. Some transgender people choose to never transition, but for others, like myself, it’s a life or death situation. Many young trans people commit suicide because they are unable to transition. Also, trans people are normal people, just like everyone else. We might redefine the sense of “normal” as you understand it, but we still have the same everyday issues you have.
Live SA: What were some of the reactions you received when you started transitioning?
Mieke: I had those who wanted nothing to do with me, who disowned me and on the other hand, those who were cool with it and completely supported me.
Live SA: What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their identity?
Mieke: The best thing is to see a psychologist, preferably one who has dealt with transgender people before. LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Intersex) organisations have support groups and resources, such as psychologists or medical doctors.
Live SA: Do you think transgenders have enough role models?
Mieke: In the last few years we’ve seen transgender people become celebrities. Some good examples are Laverne Cox (actress in television series Orange is the New Black), Isis King (the first transgender model on America’s Next Top Model) and Janet Mock (author and transgender activist who has appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday), to name a few. They are all good examples of who exactly trans people are, normal people living life. With transgender people in the public eye, the stigma is lessened. Caitlyn will serve as a good example to the older transgender generation, who might feel that it is too late for them to start transitioning. Through Caitlyn’s “coming out” they will realise that it is never too late to be who you want to be.
Images supplied by Meike.
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