The following is a speech I made at a university in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday August 18 2010, where I was asked to speak on stereotypes and the trans community as part of their Diversity Week. A special note of thanks to Busisiwe Deyi of the Eloquor Society.
My name is Christina Engela and I’m here to talk to you about transgender and transsexual stereotypes. If someone just said the word “transsexual” or “transgender“, what sort of image would pop up in your heads? What is the stereotype? Mrs Doubtfire? Boy George? A drag performer on stage? A man in women’s clothing? What sort of stereotypes come to mind? A stereotype is like gossip – even though it hasn’t been proved, people still accept it as fact, and I suppose it depends on what people have been saying.
Am I someone who’s after your children or perving over other women in the ladies room? Do I pee standing up? Am I someone that other people need to be protected against? Am I a threat to society? I’m sure you can tell I have a “unique” voice for a woman – but I can assure you that I am none of these things.
When we talk about transgender and transsexual stereotypes, lots of words come to mind, words like “freak“, “pervert“, “deviant“, “he-she’s” and a lot of other nasty words that are meant to hurt. But do any of the people who use these words or say these things about us actually know what it means to be a transsexual person? Do they know what is true and what is false about transgender people? Or are they just acting on an assumption based on their lack of knowledge of something? This is the nature of a stereotype, it is based on ignorance, assumption and inaccuracy.
I am a transsexual woman, which means that I was born in a male body, but I underwent painful surgeries to become the woman I always knew I was inside. A transsexual person doesn’t change their physical gender because they just wake up one day and feel like it. It is a lifelong unhappiness with a medical condition in which a mind of one gender is born into a physical body of another. It was something I had to do in order to continue to live and to be happy.
I’ve just told you this, but up until this moment, did you know what a transsexual woman was? Or did you believe the stereotype?I mentioned ignorance – because if I don’t know what a transgender or transsexual person is, then how can I know the truth from a lie? In fact, there is so much ignorance out there about gender issues that many trans people don’t even know that they are trans, until they eventually work it out for themselves, or they become so unhappy with the way their lives are that they are forced to look for help. You see, ignorance – and stereotyping causes so much needless suffering.
If someone tells you a lie about trans people, or if people claim that being transgender is “un-African” or “unnatural”, then how can you know if they’re lying? Well I can tell you that if you don’t see any transgender people in your community, then that is because they are hiding. And they are hiding because they are afraid of people who are afraid of anything that is different to themselves – people who act in anger brought on by their own fear, which is brought on by ignorance.
People fear the unknown, and not knowing something is ignorance. Ignorance is what breeds negative stereotypes, and these reinforce fear. So you have a vicious circle of ignorance, fear and negative stereotypes. And the way to break this vicious circle – and the answer to ignorance – is education.
If you don’t know what a transgender person is all about, then find out – ask one, and they will tell you. Ask me, I am one – and I know what I am – I’m not a stereotype, I’m happy, and I’m not afraid.