How One Transgender Woman Navigates Working in South Africa
The year is 1992 in Soweto, south of Johannesburg, and Mahlatse* is born.
Mahlatse’s parents were told by doctors that they were taking home a healthy baby boy.
But, as the now 27-year-old Mahlatse tells Global Citizen, the gender she was assigned at birth has never aligned with her identity.
“My mother tells me the same story about me crying for a dress at Woolworths when I was 3 years old every time we discuss my gender. She has always known,” Mahlatse says.
It's not been an easy journey for Mahlatse and her family.
But she admits that unlike many other queer people — who have found themselves ostracised by family members — she has been fortunate to still have a relationship with her mother.
“She really tries, but it’s clear that she doesn’t fully understand,” says Mahlatse, adding that the confusion from her family was expected simply because they weren’t educated on LGBTQ issues.
Even though the South African constitution (Act No.108 of 1996) is the first in the world to expressly forbid discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation, including a guarantee of equality, it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against people who are transgender.
And, as Mahlatse herself has experienced, that discrimination can often be most pronounced in the workplace.
Mahlatse’s experience of her working life now, as a transgender woman, is very different from when she first started working in 2014.
“When I started working I was still identifying as a gay man, which is not that taboo in corporate spaces, so aside from my dysphoria, everything was OK,” she says.
Before making the decision to transition in 2016, Mahlatse left her previous job because of the discomfort she felt in how to present her gender.
In her sabbatical, as she calls it, she had more freedom to be herself.
“I didn’t have to go be a man at work or anywhere, I was just at home focusing on me,” she says.
After more than two decades of battling with her identity, Mahlatse is now in her third year living as the woman she has always known herself to be. But, despite the positives, this has come with a new, harsher reality.
According to Careers24’s article on “Transgender Troubles in the South African Workplace”, job seeking for people who are trans is often challenging, especially if they do not fall in with “employer’s expectations”.
After transitioning, Mahlatse started to look for employment again in 2017, as she grew more comfortable in her body.
Being a graduate with a degree in Actuarial Science, she says that getting a job working in insurance wasn’t that difficult, but it took her longer than it would have pre-transition.
The challenge became about her identity documents describing her as a man while she presents as a woman.
“I would wear very androgenous clothes just to cover up and leave it to people to decide what they are comfortable with,” she says, on how she eventually found a compromise.
After the long search for employment, Mahlatse was hired at her current company in May 2018.
She describes the experience as “quite a lot”, because the manager assumed that she is a gay man and so did her colleagues.
Mahlatse's experience of people's assumptions and misuse of pronouns is far from unusual, particularly in the workplace.
As well as direct transphobia — antagonistic attitudes and feelings towards people who are transgender — there are a number of other smaller forms of discrimination that can be just as damaging and upsetting.
Misgendering, for example, is the use of the individual's previous gender pronouns rather than the pronouns they identify with.
Deadnaming is similar, but denies the individual their authentic identity by using their pre-transition name.
While people who are trans are increasingly gaining a platform in popular culture and daily life, Human Rights Campaign says transgender people still face severe discrimination, stigma, and systemic inequality.
Mahlatse went through over a month of being addressed as male and had to use the men’s bathroom, until her physical appearance was too hard and uncomfortable to hide.
“A male colleague expressed discomfort with sharing a bathroom with a woman”, she says, forcing her to then come out as trans to her employer. “I couldn’t continue using the men’s bathroom, it just didn’t make sense.”
After the involvement of management in addressing the issue, the “microaggressions” started.
“They went around asking all the women at the office if they are comfortable with me,” Mahlatse recalls. This, she says, caused her to isolate herself completely.
To this day, she uses the women’s bathroom on a different floor to avoid her colleagues.
“The situation was dealt with well on paper, but the experience was still terrible for me. But I think it’s the best you can hope for, which is sad,” Mahlatse says with a fading smile.
While she hasn’t had the extent of family issues that many people who are LGBTQ have to contend with, Mahlatse says her journey has been made easier by support from friends.
“You have to find people who are affirming and there are organisations that are very helpful,” she adds.
One such organisation is Nalane For Reproductive Justice (NRJ). NRJ does policy analysis and advises different government departments, as well as linking people to transgender-friendly medical practitioners.
The founder of the organisation, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, says that because of stigma most people who are trans are ostracised in society.
“There comes a layer of social well-being for people who are transitioning or even in the process of questioning because they are othered,” she tells Global Citizen.
NRJ has found that although the process to change one’s gender description at the Home Affairs department is three to six months, it often takes much longer.
This, the organisation says, puts individuals in compromising situations when seeking work and navigating spaces around them, like making bookings at a restaurant or hotel, and getting through airport security.
The support from NRJ is also really important in terms of accessing trans-friendly practitioners, because access to health care is a fundamental challenge faced by many trans individuals.
When it comes to public health care in South Africa, only Chris Hani Baragwaneth in Soweto, Steve Biko in Pretoria, Groote Schuur in Cape Town, and Helen Joseph in Johannesburg offer trans-specific health care services, according to Sowetan Live.
Meanwhile, the waiting list for gender reassignment surgery is 25 years at Groote Schuur hospital.
This procedure to affirm one’s gender medically is very important to Mahlatse, however she says it comes second to the need to fix her documentation.
Mahlatse says her gender expression causes a lot of anxiety for her both socially and where legalities are concerned.
She expressed her frustration with Home Affairs, saying that it is getting in the way of her living her life: “I applied for a new ID in November 2018, but I’m still waiting and my life is stuck now.”
On becoming a safe space for employees who are trans, NRJ are of the opinion that companies have to be honest about how they treat trans individuals.
“Different companies will need different remedies,” says Dr. Mofokeng. “Some might find that they have dress code requirements that are not affirming and are infringing on people’s rights to present in a way that is comfortable for them.”
She also added that it is important to review policies on parenting and leave.
“If you have a transgender couple, their reproductive needs and their maternity or paternity needs are different,” she says.
Aside from her community — another place where she has completely isolated herself — Mahlatse says the workplace is the most difficult experience for her because knowledge about her transness results in her getting antagonised.
"Once I’ve transitioned socially", she adds, "I will be more comfortable at a job where nobody knows about my genitals.”
* This name has been changed