Transgender woman goes on hunger strike over ID application

A transgender woman has embarked on a liquid and food hunger strike in an attempt to force the home affairs department to give her an identity document that reflects her changed sex and name.

Nadia Swanepoel began her transition four years ago. She approached the Department of Home Affairs three years ago and applied for a name and gender change on her identity document. 

Provision for this is made in the 2003 Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act 49. It applies to “any person whose sexual characteristics have been altered by surgical or medical treatment or by evolvement through natural development resulting in gender reassignment”. 

The Act says the people “may apply to the [home affairs] director general for the alteration of the sex description of his or her birth register”.

Applications lost
Her application document was lost several times, forcing her to re-apply four times, she said. On submitting her latest application, she was told she would have to have genital surgery to meet the requirements of the act.   

Busisiwe Deyi, of non-governmental group Gender Dynamix, said there was a lack of regulations that oversaw this category of applications. “This means the application process is left to the whims of Home Affairs officials and their prejudices.”  

By not giving Swanepoel an updated identity document, Home Affairs was ensuring she could not access a range of social services — such as bank accounts, rental and loan agreements and hospital files. “Most importantly, you are denying a person their right to vote,” said Deyi. 

Swanepoel had been forced into escorting because she could not get jobs after employers questioned why her identity document said she was a man.  

‘Inhumane’
Swanepoel said, “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.” She had been forced to spend thousands of rands going to doctors for the tests required by home affairs on each of her applications, she said.

But this changed on October 9, when she said the department had told her she could get her updated identity document in “ten minutes” if she submitted some more forms. “It’s funny. Now that there are lawyers and the media involved they can resolve this so quickly. Before they ignored literally hundreds of my calls.” 

Swanepoel said she was submitting the rest of the information that Home Affairs required. But she was not hopeful. “I have a letter which says that they can’t resuscitate me if I go into a coma [from the food and water strike], unless I have the letter saying I can get an identity document.”

The home affairs department was not available for comment at the time of publication.

Swanepoel’s case is one of many, said Deyi, and the laws – which should make South Africa a “haven” for LGBTI people – were not being put into practice. “This is not an isolated case. It is a systemic problem that impacts on transgender people’s lives.”

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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