While more gays and lesbians in the country seem to be coming out, the same cannot be said for transgender people living in Swaziland. Transgender or trans means someone whose gender differs from the one they were born with. Transgender people may be born males, but identify as female, or they may feel that neither label fits them (gender nonconforming) *Mbalie (20) and *Katie (23) are among the people in the country who were born with male genitals, but identify as women.
Like most, these two trans-women can only disclose this to a few people in their circles in fear of the stereotyping and discrimination that may come with disclosing openly. This reporter first met up with Mbalie, who was all dressed up for the occasion, although judging from some of her old pictures, looking good is a lifestyle for this trans-woman. She showed up dressed in a denim dungaree and a white vest, her makeup perfectly done complete with newly done lashes and a red manicure which is easily noticeable. Shortly after having a brief chat, her friend Katie also walks in dressed in an all white outfit – white jeans, a white vest and a crop top to be specific and wedge heels. They look like more than just the average woman. Pleasantries are made before they start talking about their experiences on living in Swaziland as transgender women, where they are not officially recognised. “We live difficult lives and people think we chose this life; there is no way one can choose to live such a life. This is who were are.”
Public offices not the friendliest
Going to the government offices for anything may be dreaded by many for various reasons including long queues, but for transgenders living in the country, going there is more like a nightmare for them.
This is because in most cases they are required to fill in forms where they are expected to indicate their gender, bringing up a lot of questions.
Mbalie and Katie have had bad experiences at public hospitals which they always dread.
“Usually, the nurses will fill in the forms and select female gender because of our appearances, and we do identify as women after all. However when you are asked to do more tests such as pregnancy tests or have to go for X-rays that is when it becomes a problem because we now have to explain about genders and they are not interested in listening. Instead one nurse only called out to her colleagues saying ‘asenitongibukisa lana’ (come and see this).” Katie says she also had a bad experience when she went to take a new national ID card where they asked her why her certificate was written that she was a male and yet she looked like a woman. “I had to be taken to their superiors because they ‘did not understand me’ but luckily she was friendlier and explained to me that a person has to look as natural as possible in their national ID. She asked me to remove my makeup, earrings and I had to undo my braids which I had just done the previous day. Because my hair is long I had to tie it at the back,” she says.
They would both like to do the gender reassignment surgery in the future although their worry is that it is very costly and they would have to travel outside of the country to get it done. Sex reassignment surgery for male-to-female involves reshaping the male genitals into a form with the appearance of, and, as far as possible, the function of female genitalia.
‘We want rights too’
Swaziland is one of the countries in Southern Africa that have been criticised heavily for neglecting the community for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender people (LGBT). This is because Swaziland has one of the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world and yet there are only a few programmes which are specifically aimed at addressing the epidemic on the LGBT population. The transgender women revealed that living in the country as a transgender person is one of the most difficult things because there are no laws that protect them. They say because of the lack of information within society, people who fail to understand gender issues call them names and they have nowhere to report such. This makes them vulnerable to more abuse. This is also one of the reasons why they requested to remain anonymous during the interview. “You would not dare walk into a police station and report that someone is verbally abusing you because even the people who are supposed to protect us have no idea what gender issues are. people in Swaziland just lack knowledge and it would make our lives easier if the laws also protected us.”
Minister Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze, who was then Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, was once quoted saying “homosexuals are not exactly visible in the kingdom.”
The minister said it was difficult for government to formulate a policy on homosexuals or enact a law to recognise them because they actually formed a minority if ever they existed. Though international donors have adopted policies to address the epidemic among key populations, these commitments are not being upheld by current levels of funding or implementation. Stigma and discrimination against this population are commonplace. Laws that criminalise same-sex practices further marginalise and prevent access to life-saving programmes. As a result, these men and women struggle to obtain the most basic health services, such as condoms, lubricant, and HIV testing.
It has never been clear where the government of Swaziland stands on LGBT issues because while there are no laws in the country that specifically prohibit homosexuality, same-sex practices are understood to be illegal under the Sodomy Act. Same-sex practices can also be charged as indecent acts or a public nuisance under common law. Stigma and discrimination against gay men, other MSM, and transgender individuals are common according to a study published by USAID’s Research to Prevention task force which found that over one-third of MSM in Swaziland reported having been tortured due to their sexual orientation.
The same study found that about one in five (19 percent) of respondents felt that they had received lower quality medical care due to their sexual orientation.
eanwhile, outgoing US Ambassador to Swaziland Makila James was recently quoted by sister publication the Swazi Observer urging the government to reach out more to the gay community as well as other key population in the country.