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For a million bucks, would you change your gender?

- Ufrieda Ho

If you grew up accepting the gender written on your birth certificate, you’re cisgender and probably would’ve never given this question much thought.

B Camminga. ©Lauren Mulligan |

“I would have answered yes to that question and I would have done it for free – but a million bucks would have been nice too,” says Dr B Camminga, with a laugh. 

Camminga, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits, likes to pose the gender question to their(*) students as a way to get directly to the heart of how skewed the modern world is towards the binary of “he” and “she”.

(*) The pronoun “they” is used to describe people who "identify as neither male nor female." It is increasingly common for people who have a non-binary gender identity to use they/them as their pronoun. Read more here:

It makes for a tight squeeze in the heterosexual box, but it is because a dominant heteronormative world has never had to reflect long enough to make more room for anything else. 

Camminga says the world, framed in this way, presents huge challenges for transgender people, and in particular for African transgender asylum seekers arriving at South Africa’s borders.  It prompted Camminga to write Transgender refugees and the imagined South Africa – bodies over borders and borders over bodies, which was published as part of the Global Queer Politics Series by Palgrave MacMillan at the end of 2018. 

Camminga says that in the past few years there has been a growing number of “gender refugees” arriving at South Africa’s borders. Gender refugees, says Camminga, are people leaving their homes, fleeing persecution, violence and discrimination on the grounds of their gender identity or expression. 

“Being transgender, you’re already on society’s margins, but being trans and being African and being an African asylum seeker, you are even more denigrated,” they say.

Author Dr GG Bolich writes: “Despite a long history of transgender realities in Africa, many modern transgendered people there experience well-warranted fear because of hostility in their families, tribes, or nations … Much of this modern hostile response has been placed on the influence of European culture, both because of a colonial past and because of contemporary pressure, or the influence of foreign religions.” 

It explains why some transgender people are forced to leave their home country and to make real what Camminga writes about in their book of transgender “being predicated on movement and, as an analytical category, encompasses concepts such as border, imaginaries and home(s). It is at once about an individual’s physical body and the lived experience of the everyday … As a term, it is also a site of travel, accruing baggage and meaning through its traversing of countries, cultures and varied institutional frameworks”. 

Gender refugees cross borders into South Africa with hopes of better opportunities, of freedom, of maybe finding a place they can call home. “I met someone who just arrived with a bag full of dresses because she wanted the freedom to wear them in public,” says Camminga. 

Even though South Africa is not always the first migration choice, it is a stepping-stone out of a home country towards destinations in Europe or North America. The migration to South Africa from other African countries frames Camminga’s research through a fresh lens of African perspectives, not those imported from the Global North. 

But South Africa is often more of a rude awakening than a better life for asylum seekers. Camminga says transgender people are forced to disguise or lie about their identity or to “finesse the system” to bypass bureaucratic hurdles. Home Affairs, Camminga says, is ironically anything but homely. “You have to first get inside a refugee reception centre – you are literally an outsider trying to get in and the queues are split into one for men and one for women. If a trans woman dresses as a woman, men may pull her out and accuse her of trying to jump the queue. Should she dress as a man and get inside the building dressed as a man, she may be confronted by an official who is ill-informed and untrained who asks, ‘if you are a trans woman, why aren’t you dressed like one?’” says Camminga. 

Some transgender people may choose to seek affirming healthcare in South Africa are also often subjected to prejudice and scorn. “It can be brutal. At some facilities people are expected to show up in the binary. One person I interviewed told me how they arrived at the hospital in a pantsuit and was told they weren’t dressed in a very womanly fashion,” says Camminga, whose research found that only about 4% of all asylum seekers are successful in gaining refugee status. It leaves asylum seekers in an in-between status, and transgender asylum seekers often resort to sex work and floating between cities while confronting the violent realities of homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. 

There is, however, also personal resilience, agency and adaptability among those transgender people who end up leaving their home countries. Making the leap is a resolution, arriving to survive in a South Africa that doesn’t tick the boxes for “safe”, never mind welcoming, takes certain courage. 

“Some cisgender people react out of fear or aggression towards transgender people, but we should be having new conversations about gender. Just as in the seventies, people started to shift their thinking that homosexuality was not a condition or something that needed diagnosis and also realising that gays and lesbians were not going away,” says Camminga. 

Trans is a possibility and a presence. It is what South Africa needs to make room for to keep the country from being a home for the darkest forms of bigotry with a Constitution that’s reduced to a beautiful mirage.

Bodies in bathrooms 

Even universal symbols have to adapt with the times, and the stick figure pictograms of a man and woman, indicating gendered toilets, are now joined by a third pictogram for gender neutral toilets. 

Tish Lumos, Programme Coordinator of Wits’ Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Advocacy Programmes, says the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in 2016 has been about creating safe spaces and making transgender people feel more at home at their University. It has also been a great opportunity for the University community to think creatively about the design of new symbols. 

“We now have over 50 gender-neutral toilets on campus and they are spaces where transgender people don’t need to feel conspicuous or threatened. The icon we’ve gone with is a third stick figure without a bottom half,” says Lumos. 

Popular gender neutral signs around the world include the third pictogram as an amalgam of the stick figures of a man and a woman or a combination of the traditional Mars and Venus symbols and a third symbol. 

Lumos says: “When we introduced the gender neutral toilets, we imagined we might have some hostility but in fact the students have been very chilled about it.” 

The Wits Transformation and Employment Equity Office has embarked on a toilet etiquette campaign that focusses on tolerance and respect, ways to report discrimination, homophobia and transphobia, and where to find support. 

It’s backed up by the University’s SafeZones@Wits programme that’s been in operation since 2011. The programme is about creating environments that are accepting and welcoming of LGBTIAQ+ people through training volunteers who become “allies” who are already part of the staff or student body. 

“People are more likely to approach someone they’ve seen in class than walk into an office. The volunteers are trained to record all incidents and they make themselves known through stickers they can leave in public spaces, the lanyards they wear and their details are on our website,” says Lumos. There are currently 200 trained Wits allies. 

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.