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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Rubrieke | Columns > Christina Engela: Fundamentally Speaking

Dismantling fear


Christina Engela - 2011-10-27

Many transsexual people I have encountered over time have chosen to introduce themselves to friends or acquaintances as being more than "just" transsexuals. Instead of just being honest about having been biologically male or female, and having changed that, they invent stories about having been born intersex – presumably because in their minds the audience will somehow view them more sympathetically that way than if they were just honest to begin with.

Obviously I am not referring to those who were really born intersex, but to those who appear to be ashamed of being associated with transsexuality, or of the route they had to follow in life to get to where they are now. It should go without saying that this doesn't sit well with me.

Some lesbian acquaintances of mine sat down this weekend and tried to make a list of local lesbians who are famous for sport or as performers, actors etc. They did this because they were looking for South Africans they could be proud of and identify with as role models. Naturally the list was quite short, and nearly every name that was suggested was not that of a South African.

For me this highlights a problem we have in South Africa – not just among lesbians, but among gay men too, and especially among the trans folk. Despite the apparent protections of our Constitution, people are still too closeted and ashamed/scared to be known – especially professional people – lawyers, doctors, actors, physiotherapists etc.

I'm not. I am who I am – and fuck you if you don't like it. I've been out for 12 years and I'm still here, never been fired, never been killed. Perhaps people do not discriminate against me because I will not take it lying down, or perhaps it's because I get on so well with everyone around me – who knows? But it's sad, really, that one has to be perpetually ready for a fight in order to discourage others from fighting you – but there it is.

There is something almost exhilarating about exceeding some people's limits without even trying. It's sad – and also sometimes rather – funny to find some people literally step back about three feet when they are told I am a transsexual woman – and then act as if they think I can somehow "infect" them with something just by being in the same room. It's quite funny to watch them run.

All this just demonstrates how small people are, like a plane trying to take off on a runway that is suddenly much shorter than they thought it was, and they crash and burn at its unexpected end.

You get over the feelings of rejection after a while, and it stops hurting and you go numb – and eventually you start to see the funny side of it all. I'm sure many gay people also know that feeling, although I doubt many people deal with the feelings of hurt, anger and rejection in the same way I do.

Often a person who is trans, or gay, or picked on for being different from the mob, doesn't understand the reasons why other people fear them or hate them or reject them. And often these people will react with aggression and hostility as a kind of defence mechanism. This also sometimes makes things worse for the individual – and the group – because then the haters have been given a reason to carry on rejecting and persecuting the victim – because Sam/Samantha is not very nice to be around, Marcie/Mark won't play with us anymore, or is being bitchy and "typical of ‘those’ people". This also shuts down lines of open and honest communication, preventing any exchange of information or learning between us.

And it isn't laws that end discrimination, it's education. Education and enlightenment change people's minds about preconceived ideas and prejudices and dismantles fear and hatred – and that is what does it.

People should understand that when others ask them questions about their orientation, sexuality or gender – or in fact anything personal – it's not always out of hostility, but could also be out of genuine curiosity. It's an ideal opportunity to educate them and open their minds. It's amazing to see the light of understanding ignite in the eyes of someone who now understands much better what you are – and has new respect for who you are.

My job is to teach people the facts about these things, about gender identity and sexual orientation – that we are people, just like them; that we have feelings, needs and emotions just like them – and that we can hurt them just as easily as they hurt us. Life is a two-way street – and sometimes there are collisions.

I'm a woman who got here via the transsexual route. That means some things in this body were removed – but my brain wasn't one of them – and neither was my heart. If that stands in the way of our being friends, or more, then it's their loss, not mine.