South Africa: Transgender rights must not end with congress declaration

South Africa: Transgender rights must not end with congress declaration

Date: October 21, 2015
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Johannesburg, 21 October: The decision by the ANC Women’s League at its latest Congress to allow transgender women into its midst is a step in the right of direction for a much-needed deepening of gender discourse in South Africa.

The pronouncement, made during Women’s Month, may also help to salvage the reputation of this powerful voice for women sadly muted by having to cower behind a polygamous president and various other regressive tendencies over the last few years.

To put things in perspective, women’s wings of just about every political party across the world suffer from the dilemma of whether they owe their primary allegiance to their party or to women’s rights. More often than not, they wear the face of their male political leaders on T shirts and chitenges (colourful African print cloths), and are regarded as the hospitality wing of their organisations.

The struggle against apartheid set the ANC Women’s League a cut above the rest. These women marched against the pass laws; were detained and tortured; fought in the trenches and led the nation to euphoric victory in 1994. They took up new posts in cabinet; they have fought for laws to end gender violence and for the right for women to choose to terminate pregnancy.

But when Jacob Zuma became president in 2008 after being acquitted in a rape case that hardly painted him as a hero in the struggle for gender equality, ANC women found themselves uncomfortably compromised. Zuma’s many wives and mistresses have also seen progressive activists in the ruling party squirm as they try to defend the indefensible – why the “big man” can have as many women as he wants but women can never have as many men as they want.

In the various tussles around succession, there has barely been a suggestion by the Women’s League that there might be a woman alternative; indeed at one point the ANC Women’s League suggested that South Africa is still not ready for gender parity, let alone a female president.

So it does come as a welcome surprise when in a country not only steeped in patriarchy but its closely linked cousin, homophobia, the ANC Women’s League finds its voice on transgender rights. This is indeed a powerful statement about being willing to challenge social norms and stigmas beyond the usual identity boxes so strongly embedded in our psyche by apartheid.

Responding to the Sowetan’s coverage of the decision, Khusela Sangoni noted that in line with the Constitutional provisions on sexual orientation, the ANC Women’s League has always welcomed women regardless of their sexual preferences. “What the 12th National Conference of the ANCWL sought to discuss specifically was the issue of opening up membership to the transgender community.”

She went on to explain that “The term transgender describes people who experience a gender identity that is different to the sex ascribed to them by being born either as a boy or a girl when everything else other than their physical bodies indicate that they are of the opposite sex.

“Some transgender people may seek to alter their physical appearance to align with their actual identity by undergoing gender realignment or affirming surgery procedures, using hormones, or undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. Many transgender people do not choose a physical transition often also because the costs of such a transition are prohibitive and express their gender identity through diverse presentations and behaviours.

“What is clear is that transgender people are discriminated against, subjected to violence and excluded from the economy. The ANCWL is a vanguard for all those discriminated and oppressed due to their sex and gender in a patriarchal society that is also heteronormative. The League should be home for all women including transgender women.”

In essence what the Women’s League is saying is that no matter our biological identity, if a person born a man identifies as female she is welcome in the ANC. This bold statement should open the door to an informed debate on diverse gender identities, often lumped together in a society that prefers simple labels into one mass of “queer” people. For example, transgender and gay people are not the same; the ANC Women’s League is not – as some have suggested – welcoming gay men to the fold. It is welcoming all those who identify as women.

In accepting transgender women into the fold, we can only hope that the ANC Women’s League will similarly find its voice on many other groups of marginalised women as we forge into the Post-2015 era. These include sex workers; young women who fall pregnant while still at school, those living with HIV and AIDS (the majority of whom are women), disabled women and those subjected to harmful traditional practices.

May the welcoming of women who find themselves trapped in male bodies into the ANC Women’s League herald a new era of standing up to patriarchy in all its guises: even when this means standing up to male leaders in the ANC! Only then will the iconic 1956 march progress to its logical conclusion: equality that is unfettered by societal norms or expectations, but recognises the right of every individual to their own voice, choice and control.

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO, and Shamiso Chigorimbo Special Projects Officer of Gender Links)


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