Trans SA citizen goes on hunge

Trans SA citizen goes on hunger strike for more Trans-parency at Home Affairs

A transexual woman wants her gender to be recognised by the Department of Home Affairs, but officials say that they may first want to see the proof in her pudding

Trans SA citizen goes on hunge

Nadia Swanepoel is not the typical kind of person who you will meet on a hunger strike. She is not a prisoner demanding better treatment or a political activist devoted to an obscure but legitimate political cause.

Nadia Swanepoel is a transexual, who wishes her identity to be recognised under the law in the way that the South African constitution should allow her to. But her bureaucratic quagmire with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) tells an uneasy story of frustration and repeated defeat, ultimately inspiring the woman to embark on a hunger strike last week.

Swanepoel, who had begun her gender transition in 2010, has been waiting for the Department of Home Affairs to officially recognise her new name and gender for three years now. Her ID book still refers to her previous identity only; one from which she seeks to distance herself.

Under the South African constitution transexual identities are fully recognised and supported under the law. The 2003 Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act allows for transexual individuals to legally seek applicable changes to their identities, as their “sexual characteristics have been altered by surgical or medical treatment or by evolvement through natural development resulting in gender reassignment.”

But despite the safeguards of the progressive act allowing individuals to “apply to the [Home Affairs] director general for the alteration of the sex description of [the] birth register,” the DHA is once again taking an exceedingly long amount of time in processing such applications and causing more than just delays with its unending internal dysfunction and perennial lack of service delivery.

Swanepoel has been told that her application documents have been “lost” on various occasions, prompting her to resubmit her application on four occasions over three years. The time-consuming and funds-depleting act of submitting documents at a DHA office should be aggravating enough on a single instance. But after four resubmissions Swanepoel was finally told that she was required to undergo full gender reassignment surgery first before qualifying for changes to be made to her official documentation. Swanepoel says she had to spend thousands of Rand with each application to obtain documents in support, only to be told in the end that it may all be in vain without undergoing irreversible surgery first.

But upon closer examination of the legal framework, Swanepoel found out that the application of the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act depends on the decision of a DHA bureaucrat. If a Home Affairs official deems Nadia Swanepoel to be a woman without having to undergo genital surgery first, she would be accepted as such before the law. But if the official refused to recognise the gender change of an individual undergoing transition, she would have prove that she has undergone sex change surgery to even be considered.

By refusing to offer Swanepoel an updated identity document, Home Affairs is forcing her to “be a man” whenever official business is concerned. Whether registering to vote or applying for a loan, she would have to falsely assume a male identity in order to qualify. This discrepancy has pushed Swanepoel out of the job market, forcing her to resort to escorting to make a living.

“It is inhumane to live like this. I feel like my life has no purpose and it is frustrating because I know that other transgender women are experiencing this difficulty.”

Recent media interest in her case has prompted Home Affairs to reexamine her case, making a non-binding pledge that with the application of her next set of documents they would follow through. But Swanepoel remains pessimistic about her outlook and pins her chances on getting through to Home Affairs on the eventual outcome of her hunger strike:

“I have a letter which says that they can’t resuscitate me if I go into a coma [from the hunger strike], unless I have the letter saying I can get an identity document.”