The room was full of eager movie watchers – those interested in the digital story methodology and those just needing a bit of down time. Neither got what they had hoped.
I started off with the stories of transgender men (or transmen – men who have changed their gender from female to male) and everyone was fundamentally challenged – either to defend themselves, sex and gender as a reality or do defend individual choice and identities.
What struck me afterwards was that the first story I showed, made by a white transman, did not illicit much comment, but the second, that of Charlie, a black transman living in the Western Cape – this is something that challenged viewers the most and prompted lots of discussion.
“Does she have a penis?”
One of the fundamentally challenging things that transgender issues spark in people is a challenge to the gender binary – that if you have a penis, you are a man, and if you have a vagina, you are a women – and everyone has one or the other. That your gender – the way you dress, behave and present yourself, corresponds with what’s in your pants. And, the content of your pants determines who you are allowed to love and have sex with.
The notion that this is not the truth about being human challenges some very deep rooted relationships of power and belonging. Race, class and ‘culture’ is intertwined with gender identity, sex identity, sex orientation and practice too.
“If you don’t have a penis are you still a man?”
Being a man or a woman grants you entry to spaces, gives you authority to speak in certain spaces, - gives you entry into the kraal. Transforming gender means opening spaces, giving authority to voices not heard – and also, as Charlie says “liberating our minds and bodies” from gender binaries. Liberating ourselves is a necessary step in allowing others to access their human rights. Rights do not exist in isolation – a nurse is the person who gives us access to the right to health care. The person behind the counter at the Home Affairs office gives us access to a social grant, a job, a bank account.
We need more spaces to talk about those things that challenge us – because if they challenge us, we are frozen when we should act. As one participant pointed out “If I don’t understand this thing, how can I give services to these people?"
The digital story was attended by far more people than the earlier session expressly about ‘sexual minorities” after all – if ‘they’ are minorities, why should we all be concerned? Transgender, gay and lesbian, intersexuality – these issues are the catalyst for learning about ourselves and what challenges us. Gay, lesbian, transgender, intersexual people are people must be included in all our programmes – access to land, access to clean water and sanitation, to houses and jobs must integrate the needs of all of us.
I would ask for more engagement on sex and gender – and even anatomy and biological sex is something that we all need to engage with. Vanessa Ludwig of the Triangle Project in Cape Town agrees “if we are to liberate everyone from gender constructs, we must open the debate”