She was my dream… She smoked Silk Cuts, she didn’t mind Marlboros, but we both had a fondness for Old Port cigars… We jumped in the taxi, nothing mattered but us.— Chocolate by Tindersticks on their album The Something Rain.
Returning from her date, Thato Letsie* beamed. “You’re invited to the wedding. We’ll probably have it in Brazil,” she laughed. Pleased that her first meeting with the young South American had gone well, her relaxed manner was markedly different from when she had left home a few hours before.
Then, as she nervously got dressed and, realising her dress needed some fixing, she had asked: “Doll, do you have any safety pins? I have an hour before this thing.”
But it was much more than safety pins she needed. It was a feeling of safety.
Young, beautiful and transgender, Letsie was fully aware of the potential risks.
There had been an increase in the number of transgender women murdered in 2017, many during hook-ups, according to Jabu Pereira of the trans and intersex rights organisation Iranti.org.
“Five trans women were murdered last year, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas. And these are just murders. We are not even talking about assault or rape,” says Pereira, adding: “In some of the murders we can’t say with 100% certainty that them being trans was the reason these hook-ups have gone violent, because nobody is there to witness.”
Pereira says that most men who are attracted to trans women are attracted to them because they are women, but because these women are trans, “these men feel conflicted in their desire”.
“For many of these men, it becomes a space of shame as opposed to a space of liberation.”
For transgender women hoping to enter into relationships with heterosexual men, deciding whether to disclose that they are transgender — and, if so, when to do so — can cause a great deal of anxiety “as well as the fear of rejection and of becoming a victim to violence”, says Chris McLachlan, a clinical psychologist and a member of the management committee of the Psychological Society of South Africa’s sexuality and gender division.
Before setting out on her date — “my first in so long” — Letsie said she had already told him she is transgender. “After I’ve disclosed … what’s the worst that could happen? I’m not worried about trans panic any more. Now it’s just first-date jitters.”
Still, she chose her regular haunt as the location for the date because “everybody knows me there and it’s close to home … just in case anything happens”.
According to the University of California’s Williams Institute, “gay panic” and “transgender panic” defences have been used by defendants in criminal trials in the United States since the 1960s.
“Defendants have argued that their violent behaviour was a rational response to discovering that the victim was LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender]. The defences are rooted in irrational fears based on homophobia and transphobia, and send the message that violence against LGBT people is understandable and acceptable. When successful, these defences have resulted in murder charges being reduced to manslaughter or another lesser offence,” it notes.
McLachlan says transgender women are the victims of hate crimes and stigmatisation, and face the possibility of being raped or worse after a man finds out that they are transgender.
McLachlan adds that when these cases are reported, “I have never seen a case go through the courts successfully. Most of the trans women who report these incidents do so after a few months or a number of years. They do not usually report it soon after the attack, because there is so much stigmatisation and so much fear. A lot of them have also mentioned that they don’t feel others will believe them and that there is so much shame involved.”
As for the number of such cases reported, McLachlan says: “I don’t think there are any stats currently available on this in South Africa.”
The taste of chocolate, cigarette, and orange liqueur made her lips even better. I undid her tartan mini-skirt, pulled of f her black wool tights, my lips moved up her legs … What the fuck? I had a large hard dick poking me in the eye. “Shit! You’re a chap!” I felt like jumping through the window, screaming, I couldn’t move …
Thandi Dubazane* is only 23 but says she has “tons of such experiences”.
Dubazane, a resident of KwaZulu-Natal’s Umlazi township, says being transgender and trying to enter into romantic relationships is “a scary place to be”. She was physically attacked by someone she had been dating “for about two months”.
“I have done top [breast] surgery, but have not done bottom [genital] surgery yet. So, all along, due to my appearance, he assumed that, because I told him I am trans, I had already done my vaginoplasty. When he found out I hadn’t done it, it all went south. He was like: ‘You are not trans, you are gay and I hate gays.’ He tried to beat me, but fortunately I was in a public space, so people stopped him before he could really do any harm,” she says.
For Dubazane, “safety is a very huge concern. Most of the time a person who wants to date you would say they understand what being trans is,but they have their own idea of what it means. They would say: ‘But you look like a woman, so you’re lying.’”
Dubazane lives daily with the possibility of violence. “Even the people I grew up with who see me every day and see the changes in me try to force themselves on me, because they think that now I have a vagina … They would say once I have my vaginoplasty, they want to taste it to see if it feels the same as the vaginas they are used to.
“So it’s a very scary place, whether you have fully transitioned or not. When you haven’t fully transitioned, you fear for your life, because a person would say: ‘What’s this between your legs?’ And when you have fully transitioned, people would want to rape you just to taste it to see if it is like other vaginas.”
Dubazane says she now understands why so many people who transition relocate from where they grew up.
Mahlia Shaltz* says she does not feel comfortable being approached by men in public spaces.
“If any man shows an interest in me in public, I am almost always going to say no … It is often those men who sweet-talk you in public and you’re thinking, ‘Oh this guy is totally aware that I am transgender.’ Then you take them home and you get beaten up … or worse,” says the 26-year-old.
Shaltz says she does a lot of vetting of the men who show interest in her. “I’m very sensitive to cues to see whether someone who shows interest in me is unkind or could be violent. One obviously can’t predict exactly,but I always look for kindness — whether they are kind and sweet and considerate. It is only then that I start to feel somewhat safe,” she says.
Although she says, “I pass quite well”, she adds that she is “very, very scared of even slightly going along with the idea that I am cisgendered”.
“I get a lot of people who don’t know what you mean when you say you’re a trans woman. In their heads, they’re looking at a woman, so it’s like: ‘How can you not have a vagina?’ And even when you tell them, for them it just doesn’t add up. I don’t know how many times I’ve told a man and they’ve said: ‘No, you’re lying.’”
She concedes that the anxiety of constantly having to vet prospective suitors has changed the way she views romantic relationships.
“I’ve never really been in a proper relationship, to be honest. The traditional boyfriend-girlfriend thing is a bit complicated,” she says.
She … he … still looked the same … [she] was holding me, sobbing … “You must have known, how could you not tell?” And, “I love you. I can be your woman …”[Her] eyes were still beautiful, deep brown, [her] lips still chocolatey and orangey. “Shit,” I said, “I was never a breast man, anyway…”
Although she is pleased she is in a relationship, Dubazane says “it is still not really a good thing”.
“There are still a lot of things he is blind to. Yes, he understands I am trans, but he still thinks I can carry kids after I have fully transitioned. So there are many things in this relationship that are scary to tackle. He has a lot of expectations,” she says.
A week after her first date, Letsie says “the chemistry has kinda fizzled away”. She concedes, though, that self-policing is partly to blame.
“As a trans person, one often thinks ‘Oh, I’m unlovable’. And I think to a certain extent we project that onto romantic relationships. You know, going through your life thinking that you will potentially never meet someone who will love you. And that’s fine, because in a way it preserves you and you maybe get to live a lot longer.
“So I think I just need to reconcile myself with being content with being single until, I don’t know, something like a relationship maybe happens. That would be great.”
As to what this relationship would look like, she smiles: “I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest. Someone funny, I guess. Someone who is there to listen. And someone who understands complexity; the complexity of being gendered … and human.”
Carl Collison is The Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian