Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Caitlyn – our new Trans* icon?

By Chris/tine McLachlan

As the world voyeuristically peeked at Mx Caitlyn Jenner splashed onto the cover page of Vanity Fair, I wondered: Is she the new poster girl/woman for the trans* community?

This is the woman that was able to beat the president of the United States with the fastest growing Twitter account. The woman that publically embraced her gender affirming coming out while the world gazed upon her body, evaluating if she is feminine enough, wondering if there are any male characteristics left. A family commenting while the media flash their cameras. A woman being celebrated, scrutinised, questioned, critiqued…

But is this South Africa’s reality?

We live in a country where the trans* person that decides to trapeze the gender binary through the quest for gender affirming hormonal therapy and surgery finds themselves searching, often in vain, for a medical doctor to assist. A country where the trans* person does have the option to join the waiting list at one of the two public hospitals with transgender clinics, but that waiting period stretches over a decade — and for a person with gender dysphoria that can be too long. A country where most medical aids will not pay for the gender affirming surgery or hormonal treatment that could enable the transgender person to live out their true mental image of their body.

In South Africa the trans* person tends to be the marginalised of the marginalised. In our country, the average trans* person needs to leave their family or community either through rejection or, far worse, for fear of their lives. They need to navigate through this immense gender-conforming divide. And to navigate with ease you need money and contacts and support. You need to find safe spaces and if you cannot find them, create them, as hate crimes are a reality. Most often trans* people become part of the hidden, the group that would rather embrace stealth than to live openly. As such, many trans* people are regarded as “abnormal” and “unnatural” in our “rainbow” country.

Caitlyn is celebrated on the cover of Vanity Fair, but even that raises the question: What is our perception of womanhood? The glamorous, make-up-impeccably-done, grippingly clad person — is that what it means to be a woman?

It reminds me of the popular magazine in South Africa that did a “make over” for Caster Semenya to show the world that she is a woman. The female body presented in such a way that most women would not fit the image. Presented in such a gender-conforming way that I wonder if it would not be more appropriate if the person was barefoot standing in a kitchen…

During the last couple of years women have challenged gender roles and strived to be acknowledged as being equal to their male counterparts. Women celebrate their uniqueness. We see photos posted of women in so many forms celebrating the feminine in all its diversity. Yet we still we uphold old version stereotypes of the feminine when it comes to Caitlyn?

The whisper of a gender revolution is being heard. But what does that entail in a country, if not a world, where the gender binary is still forefronted? The gender-queer, gender-fluid, bigender, agender person that upsets the whole idea of the polarity of this gender binary — where do they leave us in the world of gender?

People are still marginalised if they do not subscribe to the gender binary. For them to live out their identity becomes a struggle of belonging. The binary that could be lived with so much fluidity becomes a measure of who the person is. Society cannot ignore that gender is still central in our community life. It determines what colour we would wear when we are born, in which line we need to stand when we are at school, what sport we are allowed to do, on what side we will stand when we get married. Gender still shapes our world.

And for the transgender and gender non-conforming person this becomes a very unfriendly world. Caitlyn has at least opened some people’s eyes to new ways of seeing gender: for some it is a photo of celebration, for others of disgust. But for us in South Africa where we do not have the privileges and opportunities, it is just one of many lucky trans* people in the world who is finding a way to live her true identity.

Chris/tine McLachlan is a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in KwaZulu-Natal. Chris is also a PhD candidate, clinical psychology, at the University of South Africa and has Masters degrees in Practical Theology (UNISA), New Testament (UJ) and Clinical Psychology (UKZN). Chris is a core member of the PsySSA sexual and gender diversity research group and a board member of Gender DynamiX.

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