B Camminga, a 2016 Next Generation Social Sciences Doctoral Dissertation Completion fellow, studies transgender refugees establishing a new life in South Africa. B’s experience as a transgender person informs and personalizes this research on a complex pairing of crossed boundary lines. With support from the SSRC, B completed a dissertation entitled “Bodies over Borders and Borders over Bodies: The ‘Gender Refugee’ and the Imagined South Africa.” B received their doctorate from the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town.
Francesca Freeman and Natalie Reinhart interviewed B at a meeting held at an SSRC workshop in Nairobi. Sitting just outside the main lecture hall of a lush private university, B shared reflections on their dissertation research, which engaged topics ranging from discrimination against transgender refugees in South Africa, to the complex politics of identity both as it relates to the state and an individual, to the endlessly frustrating bureaucracy that transgender refugees are forced to navigate due to a state that at once recognizes their rights but lacks recognition of identities undergoing transformation.
How would you describe your project?
I work with trans-identified refugees and asylum seekers who come from countries on the African continent and are residing in South Africa either seeking asylum or who would seek asylum but have found other ways to remain in the country. I broadly term them “gender refugees.” In the greater refugee and asylum field there are ideas about sexual refugees but I think that trans people or trans-identified people need to be separated out from that category because the things that they experience in asylum systems are very different from what LGB-identified people struggle with.
Where do the people you worked with come from? Have they lived in refugee camps?
In the project itself, I don’t talk about the countries the people come from specifically because trans asylum seekers are highly visible so giving a country really gives away a lot about the person. Also, a lot of the people I have interviewed have struggled so much in the asylum system that they’ve started to undertake ways to remain in South Africa and move forward with their lives that the state would consider illegal. Most of the participants come directly from their countries of origin to South Africa and don’t spend time living in refugee camps. However, I know that trans people living in places like Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya want to come to South Africa but have trouble financing their journey and experience issues regarding ideas of “first safe country.”
As asylum seekers, they have to register and apply with their assigned-at-birth information. When they come to South Africa, are they able to assume a new trans identity?
When going to the refugee reception office, some asylum seekers have been very clever. They say “Ok, I’m here, I didn’t bring any documents with me, there is no way that they can prove that I’m not who I say I am.” If they are passing, they will apply under their chosen name and say that their gender is “F” even though they may have been assigned male at birth and their documents from their origin country say that they are male and are under a different name. For others, there is no way. I know of one participant who transitioned in South Africa because gender affirming health care is available in the public healthcare system, or at least hormones are far easier to access than anything else. When she returned to the South African Department of Home Affairs to review her documents, the official said, “This isn’t your document,” so she responds, “Check the fingerprints,” and the official says “Okay, this is your document, but what happened?” She explains that she’s trans and she’s transitioning. The official replies, “You know that I have this machine that checks your fingerprints, I can tell that this is you, but you can’t be using this in the world, you’ll get arrested, and how long does this take to get through our bureaucracy? You’ll be in jail for a week and no one will know.” And when she asked, “Well, can this be changed?” the question went through an entire bureaucratic system and the head of Home Affairs came back and said, “We can’t change this because, if we do, we are creating a whole new human being. In your country of origin you are a man. If we say that you are a women in South Africa, we are effectively naturalizing you because you don’t exist in that manner in your country of origin.” Currently, there is no way for asylum seekers to change their documents or to [legally] change their name at all.
And then she made a choice. She now has fake documents that she paid 500 rand for and that she uses for her banking and for applying to jobs. She still renews the unchanged originals at Home Affairs in hopes that she one day gets refugee status through those documents but she doesn’t use them for anything else.
There seems to be a really poetic structure in your dissertation in terms of transitioning between geographical spaces and transitioning within the space of the body. Are those two things linked in your mind?
Yes. I love the fact that in South Africa the Department of Home Affairs manages both asylum seekers and any trans issues. I use those parallels particularly in relation to the standardized trans narrative of a linear journey from one home to another home—crossing into a no man’s land or a borderland space and then returning as the person you’ve always been but homed in this new self. This is often a very privileged narrative. A lot of what I talk about is the inability to enact a linear narrative in these situations. People are saying, “We’ve lived in our communities in a certain way and we are homed already. The problem is not with us. I just want to feel a sense of safety and don’t want to feel a sense of unease in community spaces.” In some iterations of trans within this project, there’s no idea of moving from one gendered home to another gendered home and coming into the world as one’s self. It’s always a precarious journey. I use Gloria Anzaldua’s notions of borderlands as a very productive space and some people simply want to stay in that borderland—some people walk to South Africa with a bag of dresses and all they want to do is wear those dresses and that’s the extent of what trans means for them. It’s not about anything more than that.
What was the process of renaming your participants in order to maintain anonymity?
That’s been one of the most fraught elements of my PhD process. Some of them are known already and some of them are not, but I wanted to blanket everyone and use pseudonyms. When I suggested that they could choose their own pseudonyms it became quite an emotional space and a lot of the participants told me to choose a name for them. Only one person gave me a name to use.
I think in retrospect, I should have pressed participants to give me a name. Once a trans person renames themselves, that name holds importance to them; it’s often invested with a particular meaning. I researched the original meaning of the names that they carried and tried to give assign pseudonyms that were from the same area or country of origin that carried a similar meaning to their chosen names. As a white researcher, I can’t just call someone Timmy, Bobby, or John—that’s not going to work. I made a mistake in the beginning by just assigning participants by their initials. During a supervision meeting one of my supervisors said that initials read as not real, as inhuman. This tore me apart because I have worked so hard not to make that mistake. We had a long discussion about it and that’s when I took time out to specifically give everyone a name. I was hesitant at first—I didn’t want to give people names. My supervisor’s response was that at some point we’re all going to do things in our theses that make us feel unhappy and you have to do what you can sleep with at night.
Are the people you worked with often in communities within South Africa, and, if so, what are those communities like?
Unlike the rest of the continent South Africa doesn’t practice encampment, we practice local integration. The South African constitution specifically states that rights belong to everybody within the country—not just citizens—so the only difference really between an asylum seeker and a South African citizen is that a citizen can vote. As soon as a person comes into the country and has the asylum paper, they have access to health care, education, and also theoretically have access to jobs. The downside of this system is that South Africa doesn’t provide any means of assistance for asylum seekers once they enter the country—you come across the border, you don’t know anyone but you think this is paradise, and you are immediately faced with the fact that your only means of support is going to be your country of origin community in South Africa, which often hold the same prejudices as people in their country of origin.
Some people arriving in South Africa have friends who they know are LGB or trans. As newly arrived asylum seekers, they go to these people for support. I have a specific group of people who are sex workers in Johannesburg who clustered together into a flat owned by somebody who I call Trisha. She lends them her clothes and teaches them where to go—there’s a gay corner in Joburg where they all work. Many of the people living in this community know about Trisha before they arrive in South Africa. Once somebody crosses the border, they phone Trisha saying, “I’m here, you need to pay for the taxi.” You can get a taxi at the border, but at some point somebody has to pay for that taxi and if you arrive in Joburg and the fare hasn’t been paid, then the person at the receiving end must pay; otherwise you are in deep trouble. Trisha helps pay for the taxi and then the new arrival pays Trisha back through learning the trade—survival sex work.
Is sex work the primary work available to trans asylum seekers?
I’d say the majority of trans asylum seekers who identify as women or express a kind of femininity are involved in sex work. They are highly visible in society and therefore struggle to find other forms of employment. Additionally, employers are unlikely to hire asylum seekers in general; employers argue that they don’t know if the asylum seeker is going to stay so why should they invest in them, especially when they know that the employee will have to miss work once every three to six months [to renew their papers] and that’s two days out of the employer’s time that they are paying for.
If you are a trans person on top of that, the likelihood of getting employment outside of your own in-country community is very slim. Those who do get employed are often hiding—they are presenting as male and dressing in specific ways. One participant who identifies as female has a job in a hairdresser. The reason she is able to work there is because she is able to pay for the seat in the salon—as long as she makes enough money she can rent that seat, so she’s kind of self employed. Even so, she faces heightened aggression from men who also work there.
Do you think that white trans people are safer than black trans people?
Black trans people are in more danger. This has a lot to do with the continued role of apartheid and apartheid structures of privilege. If you are trans and want gender-affirming healthcare, it is easiest to get access to hormones through the public healthcare system. That’s fairly basic and straightforward. It’s easy for refugees too.
When people arrive in South Africa, they have to go to their country-of-origin community, which often holds the exact same prejudicial attitudes as communities in the place that they have escaped from. People from her home country have attacked one participant three times since she arrived in South Africa. This person was attacked in Cape Town so she decided to take out her earrings, cut her hair short, put on traditional male wear, move to the same country community in Joburg and hide her trans identity. People from Cape Town came to Joburg and said to the shopkeeper where she was now employed as a man, “Do you know who you’ve got working for you?” and the shopkeeper said, “He looks like a strong guy.” They told the shopkeepers to check her ears for piercing marks because culturally her community does not pierce their ears. Ear piercing is considered a sign of homosexuality. She was fired on that day and beaten outside. A truck driver stopped the fight and took her to the hospital. What happens next blows my mind. She leaves the hospital after having her stab wound dealt with and then goes back to that community to stay in a hostel that caters to her country of origin because where else could she go? That night the same people that beat her heard she was staying at that hostel so they told the hostel owner that they would burn the house down if she did not kick this person out. The participant was forced to beg the hostel owner to let her stay the night saying she had nowhere else to go.
In South Africa as a trans asylum seeker it seems it is always a matter of living in a very visible way and in communities where people are living on top of each other. There is one participant who arrives home late and leaves early before anyone can see her; none of her neighbors know what she looks like. It’s a management of space and a management of identity. Another participant is living in a two bedroom flat with five people. Four of them are cisgendered Nigerians and they tell her that she is not allowed to touch anything because they think who she is is a disease.
It’s the administrative issue of gender, it’s an economic history, the racial history, it’s all of those things combined—it’s not simply being transgender that’s problematic, it’s who you are and your finances. White South Africans, for the most part, have it far easier.
Based on your research, is there a new law, institution, or other form of protection that currently is absent you would wish to see enacted?
I think that given the precarity of both migrant/refugee rights and transgender rights in South Africa (and more broadly on the African continent) there is broad based fear of addressing the refugee issues and transgender issues together. In South Africa we have yet to actually have a conversation about the existence and needs of transgender refugees and asylum seekers specifically at a state level and I think organizations (both transgender and migrants/refugee rights) are weary of doing so. The current law that covers the ability of South Africans to adjust their documentation once they transition is called the Sex Description and Sex Status Act 49 of 2003. In the discussion leading up to the bill it was noted that it would need to cover not only South Africans but also foreigners living in the country (as the UK Gender Recognition Bill does). Act 49 has a pretty bizarre and convoluted history (its original draft is actually based on Apartheid era legislation). In order to rush the Act through it was decided to drop this requirement under the agreement that the Act would be returned to and revised at a later stage. This has never happened and the Act as it stands now barely functions for South Africans given that it has no attached protocols. This should be the first issue that is returned to not just for trans asylum seekers but for all trans people in South Africa.
The dream would be to have gender markers removed from documentation altogether, including refugee/asylum documentation. There is some precedent for this—the Dutch are testing it out cautiously at a municipal level. Documentation provided to refugees after WWII allowed for an X category sex/gender marker because it often wasn’t clear from the name provided what gender the applicant was (incidentally this is how countries like Australia and New Zealand have begun to be able to facilitate X category passports today).
Please visit the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa website to learn about funding opportunities for scholars in Africa and to read more interviews with fellows and program participants.