Gender, a state of mind

Robert Hamblin has fond memories of his childhood. His male cousins accepted him as just another mate. His grandfather used to take him round the farm and joked about the bulls’ twaksakke (balls).
He did not mind that the child carried the name of Adele.

But then Hamblin started developing breasts and “the boys” dumped him. His grandfather no longer talked about the bulls’ balls. His cousins became strangers, as did his own body. “I started losing my body when I got the breasts,” he says.

Later, during school holidays, Hamblin worked as a darkroom assistant and eventually became a photographer. Through this art form he documented his questions about sexuality and his uncertainty about where he fitted into the gender rainbow.

Hamblin tried being a lesbian but eventually made peace with the idea of being a man trapped inside a woman’s body.

These days the award-winning photographer is a happy transsexual—officially in the process of becoming a man. Hamblin is also vice-chairperson of Gender DynamiX, a new lobby group for transgendered people.

“Most of us understand what being lesbian, gay or bisexual is all about, but being transgendered is an issue that still has to come out of the closet,” he said.

Hamblin believes prejudice against transsexuals can be eliminated with better information campaigns. The organisation has started lobbying the Department of Home Affairs to make it easier for people to change their sex, a process that is complicated despite the necessary laws being in place.

Hamblin’s journey to manhood has been full of symbolism. He changed his name from Adele to Robert. Five years ago he cut his long hair. “As long as my hair was long, my mom and dad forgave me. My hair gave my granny hope for great-grandchildren.”

Hamblin met his girlfriend while still living as a lesbian, but the fact that she is now dating a man has not influenced the way she feels about him.

“Gender has nothing to do with sexuality,” Hamblin explains. “Technically, I am straight. It is all about how you see yourself.”

Transsexuals who want to have a sex change have to go through four stages before the operation: assessment, psychotherapy, real life experience and hormonal therapy. Hamblin is currently going through the “real life experience” stage, living as a man.

Fellow Gender DynamiX member Natalie Louw is a stylish fiftysomething woman, who transformed from man to woman. Few would make the connection between her identity of today and that of yesterday: the Pretoria lawyer, once Albertus Wynand, father of two, and husband of 24 years.

“From early on, I played girls’ games,” Louw remembers. “Once the maid caught me trying on my mom’s clothes and told my dad. He said he would put me in a girls’ school. I was excited about the ‘impossible’ idea.”

It was after his wife’s death that Louw decided to live as a woman. But, while Hamblin was protected in an artistic community, Louw had to face her colleagues in the civil service. For many of them, a sex change operation was a foreign idea.

“People thought it was part of the grieving process for my wife,” she said. One day Louw heard her supervisor tell a colleague that “things were going from bad to worse”.

She immediately made an appointment with her boss and told him about her decision.

“Amazingly, he said if this is your decision, we would support you,” she said. They immediately informed her colleagues at a meeting.

“Yes, people started talking behind my back and giggling when I passed,” she said. “But most people were very supportive.”

Louw was surprised that her boss encouraged her to wear skirts. But then the issue of toilets started cropping up. Men felt uncomfortable whenever this “man in skirts” went to the loo, and her superiors told her to switch to women’s bathrooms.

Louw has had three operations. The first, an orchiectomy, involved a surgical castration, after which she developed breasts and her facial features softened. Her second operation was a partial penectomy, in which parts of her penis were used to form a vagina. The last operation was a labioplasty that formed the lips of the vagina. Louw decided not to have breasts implants, as she is an active athlete. All in all Louw had to cough up R110 000 for her sex change, excluding the R30 000 on a new wardrobe.

Hamblin is not sure how many transsexuals there are in South Africa. About 130 people belong to the organisation and each of them knows at least three more people, he explains.

Many private clinics perform sex change operations, but the state allows only six people a year at the Pretoria Academic Hospital. One person has the authority to approve or reject the operation.

“We don’t think that is fair,” Hamblin argues. “It also costs R450 for half an hour to see the guy, though the operation is covered by the state.”

Neither Hamblin nor Louw could even consider going back.

“I feel alive and when I cry, it is real,” says Hamblin. Louw agrees that the thought of going back to being a man makes her want “to die”. Both say for the first time in their lives, they have found their true selves.

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