Travails of the transgender

Cape Town. 190516. Christiana Odendaal, a transwoman, lives in Bellville with her wife Annaat and her daughter. The Odendaals married before Christiana transitioned in 2009 and decided to stay married afterwards. Picture Leon Lestrade. Story Bethany Ao.

Cape Town. 190516. Christiana Odendaal, a transwoman, lives in Bellville with her wife Annaat and her daughter. The Odendaals married before Christiana transitioned in 2009 and decided to stay married afterwards. Picture Leon Lestrade. Story Bethany Ao.

Published May 22, 2016


Transgender people living in Cape Town face a range of healthcare and social struggles. Weekend Argus reporter Bethany Ao, a visiting US journalism student, lifts the veil on the issue in part two of this series. 

For many transgender people in South Africa, incorrect sex statuses on their IDs pose a huge inconvenience to their everyday lives.

Routine activities such as drawing money from a bank, applying for housing and being stopped by police become overwhelming and often embarrassing experiences.

Under the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act 2003, transgender citizens may apply to change their sex statuses with the Department of Home Affairs once they have undergone part of their transition. The requirements for the application include two letters from medical officials: one proving the person is living full time in the gender they identify as and one proving they are on hormones. However, many have found the process long and burdensome.

A transgender man who goes by the pen name Dylan Marx received his new ID in 2004 after a two-year wait. He said he was humiliated at the bank when they denied him money because his old ID showed his sex status as female.

“It’s a fundamental issue,” he said. “Once I was stopped by police while driving and forced to walk home because my licence still showed me as a female.”

Ronald Addinall, a clinical social worker, sexologist and academic at UCT’s Department of Social Development, said transgender citizens often have to apply twice for new IDs with the department. The first step is a name change and the second step is the sex status change.

“We often recommend to our clients, don’t dare try to do both at the same time, because the section that’s dealing with name changes and the section that’s dealing with sex alterations are not the same sections,” he said.

Addinall said the time it took to receive correct IDs varied. Some receive theirs in nine months and others wait up to three years while constantly following up.

“You’re very much at the mercy of whoever’s at the desk that day. I’ve had clients who told me persons have told them, No, we don’t do that, that’s not a rule in South Africa, you can’t change your sex, there’s no such thing,’” Addinall said. “My clients have seen the person go around the corner and drop their forms in the bin.”

In 2014, Nadia Swanepoel, a transgender woman, went on a hunger strike to force the department to process her ID application faster. By the time she began her strike, she had already been waiting for three years. The department had lost her documents several times and Swanepoel was forced to re-apply for her ID four times.

Sandile Ndelu, a transgender woman and an activist with Gender DyanamiX, said the delays affect people’s socio-economic rights.

“If you don’t have an ID which reflects what people see when you walk into a room, it becomes problematic when you try to apply for public housing or if you try to make transactions inside a bank. It’s really a nightmare. People’s civil and political rights are deferred because they are not able to self-identify and the law doesn’t recognise them as their gender.”

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Ethelwyn Rebelo, a clinical psychologist in Joburg, said not having an ID that reflects who you are is an extremely stressful situation.

“An ID that has not been changed also prolongs the trauma of feeling trapped in an identity that does not feel right for the person,” she said. “This can be embarrassing, entailing lengthy explanations to strangers who may not be sympathetic.”

A plastic surgeon who works closely with transgender patients said he often tells them which Home Affairs centres are more transgender-friendly than others to help them receive their IDs faster.

“I suggest to my patients, If you’re in Cape Town, go to Wynberg, don’t go to Cape Town. Try and avoid Bellville if you can and try to avoid Strand.’

“You kind of work out which ones are trans-friendly and which ones aren’t,” he said. “If they have a good experience with somebody, they should take down their name and share their name so when someone else goes, they can say, I want to see so-and-so.’”

Homes Affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete said most cases were processed quickly.

Despite this, transgender citizens said they continued to struggle with getting IDs back in reasonable time.

“Even though the system exists, the legal processes exist and on the surface everything looks wonderful, the execution of it is a significant source of difficulty,” Addinall said.


Two ways to marry, but sometimes neither works

Christiana Odendaal met her wife Annaat on a train in 1986 when Odendaal protected her from a man’s unwanted attention.

At the time, Odendaal was a young man and military conscript. After countless letters and phone calls, they married in 1988 and had their first child, a son, soon after.

Everything changed in 2009 when Odendaal came out as a woman to her family. Unable to keep her secret for any longer, she sat Annaat and their children at their dining room and told them that she had “a soft heart like a woman’s heart”.

“I was really disappointed with how I was before coming out. I was treating my family and friends cruelly,” Odendaal said.

“I told them I had wanted to be a woman since I was 4 years old. Everything fell apart.”

After Odendaal’s confession, her family left briefly to attend Annaat’s grandmother’s funeral.

While they were gone, she took the chance to make an appointment with Ronald Addinall, a clinical social worker, sexologist and academic at the UCT Department of Social Development.

When her family returned, they and Odendaal started therapy with Addinall.

Eventually Annaat began to accept her spouse for who she was.

They decided not to get divorced. The Odendaals’ decision led to a whole new series of unexpected challenges with the Department of Home Affairs.

Monogamous heterosexual civil marriages and same-sex civil marriages are covered by two laws: the Marriage Act 25 of 1961 and the Civil Union Act 17 of 2006, although the rights afforded in each are the same.

Often when married people transition and decide they want to stay married, the couple have to change their marriage from a heterosexual one to a same-sex one.

This creates a complex situation which the department often tries to resolve by divorcing the couple and remarrying them under the correct law.

Mandivavarira Mudarikwa, an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre, said this was not always possible because a transition is not enough reason for a divorce to be granted by a court.

“If the two people involved are fine with it, then there is no problem that can be recognised as a reason for a divorce,” she said. “Sometimes the department will just delete your old marriage and mark you as never been married and put a new one in.”

Mudarikwa said she knows the department has converted at least one marriage to avoid litigation in the past, but there is no protocol on how to deal with these situations.

The Odendaals were married before the Civil Union Act 17 of 2006 was passed, so their marriage should be recognised under the Marriage Act 25 of 1961.

But when Odendaal requested their marriage certificate at the beginning of this year when she was undergoing treatment for stomach cancer, she found out that she was married to herself on paper. Annaat was also married to herself.

“I changed my name and gender status on my ID in 2011, but clearly that caused some confusion up in Pretoria,” Odendaal said.

“We’re waiting for them to fix it now.”

Gender DynamiX, a transgender-focused organisation in Cape Town, is engaged in litigation efforts to stop the government from divorcing transgender people.

Sandile Ndelu, a woman and activist with Gender DynamiX, said it was unfair transgender people are forced to deal with this.

“Divorce is a momentous thing and it has very, very harsh consequences,” she said.

“You don’t want to divorce and the state just divorces you.

“The Department of Home Affairs needs to consider the impacts it has.”

Odendaal and Annaat live together in Bellville with their 18-year-old daughter.

They’re a happily married couple in every way, except on paper.

But if all goes well, that will change soon.

“My children call me Nanny now,” Odendaal said with a smile.

“We’re all very comfortable with one another.”

Weekend Argus

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