By Ufrieda Ho

Trans: Transgender Life Stories From South Africa

Edited by Ruth Morgan, Charl Marais and Joy Rosemary Wellbeloved

Published by Fanele (an imprint of Jacana Media), Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action and Gender DynamiX, and funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Recommended Retail Price: R165

Tick a box - male or female. Easy enough to do, unless you're a man trapped inside a woman's body, or vice versa, like Simone Heradien, who was born a male but identifies herself as a woman.

Heradien says growing up she dressed in girls' clothing and played with dolls. "I never saw myself as male," she says, peering out from behind long-lashed turquoise-coloured eyes.

As a transgendered person, Heradien's journey to align her physical body of a male with her identity as a woman has been about finding appropriate and affordable medical help, battling to shift her legal status, and challenging assumptions and prejudice.

She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1994, but knows there will always be people who refuse to accept her as a woman and who will disagree with her choices, including her own mother.

"I guess my mother wanted one of her sons to become a lawyer or a doctor. My sister Tammy was also transgendered, but unfortunately she died from Aids before she could have gender reassignment surgery. That was something I swore would never happen to me," says Heradien.

But even as surgery gave her new physical status by 1995, she was still regarded as a man on her South African ID. She recalls in the early 1990s a bank clerk's dilemma of trying to reconcile Heradien's status of "female" ticked on her bank application form with what the bank's computer system spat back every time the clerk entered Heradien's ID number, which proclaimed her to be male.

She remembers, though, her delight when the bank offered to use "Miss" on all correspondence with her, even though it was obliged to use her male ID details.

The ID debacle, however, was critical in turning Heradien into an activist. Heradien says that she was "all shoulder pads and Alexis Carrington-Colby-Dexter-Farlow (the character from late-80s TV series Dynasty)" in her bold approach to fighting for her own rights, but she realised then that many transgendered people were trapped in their bodies and by society's censure.

One big leap forward lies in the launch of a new book called TRANS: Transgender Life Stories from South Africa (Fanele), edited by anthropologist and author Ruth Morgan, as well as transgendered individuals Charl Marais and Joy Rosemary Wellbeloved.

The book is a groundbreaking collection of personal narratives of transgendered South Africans, including Heradien's. There's an insightful transcript from a group discussion, and a brother and mother write about their transgendered family members.

Esther, the mother of Soweto student and model Vanya, a 23-year-old transgendered MTF (male to female), writes: "Please just let your children be who they are, you shouldn't let your children live the life that is not theirs."

Morgan says there's long been a need for accessible, non-academic literature on transgendered people. There's also a need to clear up misconceptions - like being transgendered is not being intersex, which is being born with sex organs that are not clearly female or male.

It's also not about someone's sexual orientation or being a transvestite, which is someone who dresses in clothing of the opposite sex. The term transsexual is a medical reference for transgendered people who seek medical treatment to become the gender they identify with.

The lack of consensus of the terms, even among contributors and editors of Trans, made the book's glossary one of the toughest sections to write, Morgan admits. What it speaks to is the fact that there are deeply personal experiences and variations, even when commonly used terms are applied.

Morgan says common experiences, especially in the years before information was available on the Internet and before apartheid ended, are transgendered people's profound sense of isolation, feelings of being different and having few resources and little support.

For Wellbeloved, born in South Africa in 1942, there was scant support, and getting hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery was elusive, expensive and tedious. She recalls that even in 1982, a support group called the Phoenix Society was itself "primarily one of the secret societies where the members were not free to communicate with each other... the members were ultra-closeted in those days".

There's still stigma and secrecy today. "The people in the book all commonly speak of a sense of alienation," says Morgan. "Growing up there was little they knew about being transgendered. When they did read something about a trans person, it was something sensationalist or obtrusive."

Heradien has high hopes for Trans. "I don't see this as a battle for transgender rights, but about improving information about gender diversity, that should start at primary school level with a book like this," she says.

Heradien was among a delegation that took the case of transgendered people to parliament in order to enact the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Bill in 2003. She knows, though, that by no means has alienation, confusion and outright hostility vanished, even in an era of constitutional rights.

But change starts with information and with breaking out of boxes - the ones that box in people's thinking and the ones that put someone's gender down to a square on a form.

  • For more information, go to www.genderdynamix.co.za, the website of transgender rights and support organisation Gender DynamiX, or e-mail [email protected]