By Nomatter Ndebele
Zizipho has flaming red hair that matches her clutch bag. Her demure pink
manicure matches her soft pink top. Initially, Zizipho gives nothing away, she doesn’t smile much, but when she does, she reveals a dazzling, disarming white smile, picture perfect teeth.
Zizipho has lived in South Africa for 10 years. In 2008 she ran away from Zimbabwe to start a new life in South Africa where she believed she could be free. Ten years later, Zimbabwe remains a country that has high levels of intolerance towards men who have sex with men. Zizipho recalls being called ugly names on the streets, as well as being beaten up by police officers for being gay. “You know how they are there,” she says.
One afternoon, tired of living on the margins of Zimbabwean society, Zizipho made her way to what she believes is the land of the free, South Africa. “I had heard that In South Africa, Gay people were free, they lived without anyone bothering them.” With nothing other than the clothes on her back and the idea of being free, Zizipho boarded a bus, to chase freedom.
South Africa is one of the first African countries to legalize same sex marriage. The country’s Civil Union Act was passed in 2006, following a 2005 Constitutional Court judgment instructing Parliament to pass legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married.
Almost 12 hours after boarding that bus Zizipho set foot in the so-called promised land. Her first mission was to pursue her life-long dream of Gender reassignment “I had always known that I wanted to be a woman, and when I started seeing adverts about it, I was even more convinced, so I started searching for someone who could help me,” she said.
In the beginning, Zizipho struggled. She could not find any reliable sources of information about the process of transitioning. For at least three years, Zizipho hit walls in her quest for useful information, but eventually she found her way to a doctor’s room in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Desperate to speed the transitioning process up, Zizipho hardly bothered with all the pre-counselling. She told the doctor she knew everything there was to know about the process, and was ready to begin.
Today Zizipho is taking female hormones as part of her transitioning process. She knows very little about them and what they are doing to her body. “I’ve just noticed that I’ve started gaining weight and I don’t have to shave as often,” she says.
Zizipho has also decided that she will not go for voice training. “I love my voice, and I don’t want it to change,” she says decisively. So far during her transitioning, her voice is the one thing that gives it all away. “When I am walking in the street, men see a woman, but they are taken aback when they hear my booming voice.”
One of Zizipho’s challenges is that at first glance, most of her clients believe she is a woman, but when they see her penis, they are taken aback and become confused. “That’s very hard for people to understand, but I am very open, and when I explain what I’m going through, they often understand.”
Zizipho says that she has not met any hostility while living in South Africa, “I don’t have to hide, everyone in my neighborhood knows who I am, and they respect me, they never call me names.”
Despite the fact that her community has welcomed her with open arms, Zizipho is not ignorant about the groups of people who do not understand or accept what she is going through. Like other people we spoke to, she feels there is not enough support for people like her.
“You’ll never even find a support group or anything like that for people like us, they often Just mix us up, but we need to talk about our issues specifically,” says Zizipho.
This article is part of a Spotlight special series on people who form part of so-called key populations.