11 September 2003

South Africa: Transsexuals Fight for Right to Change Sexual Identities

Johannesburg — 'I will not have a credit card because every time you use your card you have to explain your personal life in public'

CRIES from the transsexual wilderness are being heard by Parliament's home affairs committee, which is considering the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Bill.

The bill is to allow people who have changed their sex to apply to the home affairs department to alter their sex description in the national population register used for identity documents. The Births and Deaths Registration Act will also be amended.

The bill takes SA to the international forefront of liberty and human rights. It recognises the advancement of medical science and the shifting sands of human identities. It gives legal recognition to the idea that biology is not destiny, and does not designate people's sexual identity.

A letter sent to the committee by a 27-year-old woman, born a boy, gives an insight into the twilight world in which transsexuals live: "I was born a boy, and I am currently working to correct what I believe to be nature's mistake and become the girl I was meant to be.

"I never asked to be born a transsexual, but I was. I don't know why it happened, but I guess mistakes happen.

"I came out to my mom and dad mid-November of 2002, and it did not go well. I fled to Johannesburg because I could no longer face them.

"I was 10 years old when I realised I was different and wanted more than anything to be a girl. As I grew up the feelings inside me grew, and I felt myself torn between my love and loyalty to my family and the strange feelings inside of me."

She hoped that the committee members would not be biased about "transsexual people, and that they will take our issues to heart when making their decision. It is not easy to change one's sex and live one's life as a member of that chosen sex."

Other submissions tell of the humiliation transsexuals experience when they have to explain why their identity documents do not reflect their sexual identities.

This requires them to explain their most intimate and private lives in public. They also highlight the practical difficulties they experience in opening bank accounts, obtaining passports, producing driver's licences and using public toilets.

"I will not have a credit card because can you imagine that every time you used your card you have to explain your personal life in public," says a transsexual.

"You need to produce an identity document for so many things. Often you have to fill in forms that request your ID number. People can tell from your ID number what your sex is.

"Say, for example, I go to a new dentist, what interest is it to him what sex I am?," says another.

Before 1992 it was possible for people who underwent sex realignment operations to have a change of sex registered with home affairs. However, the law changed after a high court decision that a person's sex could not be medically changed, which consigned transsexuals to a legal wilderness.

The South African Human Rights Commission's Judith Cohen says the judgment amounts to "a purely biological and genetic definition of sex. In other words, a person's sex for legal purposes is a biological question, and is fixed at birth." This would remain unaltered after a sex realignment operation even though this was allowed by law and in some cases even paid for by the state.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that not recognising a transsexual's postoperative sex constitutes a violation of the right to privacy and the right to marry and found a family.

"In the 21st century the right of transsexuals to personal development and to physical and moral security in the full sense enjoyed by others in society cannot be regarded as a matter of controversy," says Cohen.

"The unsatisfactory situation in which postoperative transsexuals live in an intermediate zone, as not quite one gender or the other, is no longer sustainable."

Cohen notes that the trend to recognise transsexual rights accelerated and strengthened during the 1990s.

The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project says transsexuals had benefited from law reform in SA.

"Birth certificates remain the legal mechanism by which the law gets our sex wrong, and as such they are a means by which discrimination can be legalised and facilitated," the project says.

The bill also covers "intersex" people, those whose physical sex at birth is indeterminate, although the project holds that it does not give relief to those whose sex organs remain ambiguous after puberty and are unwilling to submit to surgery.

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