By: Juanita Van Zyl
* TRIGGER WARNING*
This story contains sensitive material including sexual content, emotional/physical abuse, violence and suicide that may not be appropriate for all readers.
I was born a healthy young boy (or so it seemed) in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on 1 July 1979. My first-ever memories of being different are at age three. I was not interested in my toys and always ended up in my mother’s closet, wearing her shoes and clothes. My parents never worried. They thought it was just a phase.
My parents are old school ‘Afrikaner’ people. They grew up in the Apartheid days. They were very religious. I grew up in a very strict household. My dad was in the military but later moved to the prison service. I was drilled from a young age to be a man. I hated that. I suppressed the memories of my dad beating me as a child, but he used to do that often, especially when I showed feminine behaviour. He used a ‘strap’ to beat me. It had a 20cm long wooden handle. Attached to the wood was a 20cm piece of leather about 5mm thick.
My last proper beating was around age eight or nine. All I remember was his hand firmly behind my neck pushing my head into the bed. I remember him screaming that he would stop hitting me once I stopped crying. I don't remember much else. I later stopped crying because I passed out from the pain. He got a fright because that day he thought he killed me. He never laid a hand on me again, but that didn't stop him from screaming me into submission. Physical abuse was traded in for emotional abuse. I was never allowed to cry. I was used to the words “be a man” and “man up”. I was scared of him when I was young. Only when I was older did I rebel.
I remember at age six kneeling next to my bed with tears rolling down my face pleading with God to change me into a little girl. I knew I was different, but I was alone in a world where this type of thing was from the devil. This was the age where I started to hate everything about myself. It is difficult to be so young and filled with so much hate for yourself. This hate turned into thoughts of suicide. I remember praying and wishing I was dead or never born. I was at my happiest when I could play with other girls, but got into trouble because I was a "boy" and not supposed to play with the girls like a girl. I was a confused and troubled child, and no one seemed to notice or care how I felt.
I was about eight years old when I wanted to cut my wrists. I remember the cold blade on my wrist and the tears and how my room door was broken down. Because my dad was a high ranking officer, everything was kept secret. I started therapy, but never felt comfortable speaking to anyone about my feelings. I never had the courage to say I wasn't a boy. I had major issues at school. I was teased a lot, even though I did everything a boy had to do, even sports, but the other kids always noticed differences. I got so angry at times; I threw tantrums in class, throwing desks and chairs around. My self-hate was expressed in violent and erratic behaviour. I started collecting my mother’s clothes when I was around 9 years old. I had various hiding places. Every opportunity I had, I would try to be a girl.
In high school, puberty started, and further hates and fears developed; the disgust when I got my first erection. I hated it. On many occasions I had a knife or large scissors, wanting to cut it off. I was afraid of pain. I sometimes used rubber bands and tied it tightly around everything, hoping, wishing it would fall off. Eventually, when the pain got so bad I couldn't walk, I would take it off. Sometimes I pushed everything as hard as possible up my body, wishing it out of sight. No physical pain could compare to the emotional pain I felt.
High school years also had a plus. I was exactly my mother's size. Because of my upbringing, I always felt guilty about who I was and what I was doing. I was 16 when I planned my next suicide attempt. It failed miserably. After that I searched for God. I decided to give my life to Him and stop my secret life. The first few months were okay, but then I became negative and aggressive. I survived another suicide attempt when I was 18. When I was 19, my dad passed away and I thought his death was my punishment for being different. I ended up with psychologists and on medication. Nothing worked. One day, I just got into my car, bought woman’s clothes and shoes and dressed up again. I ended up at my dad’s grave, crying for the first time since his death. I remember saying, “Hello Daddy. I'm your daughter Juanita. I wish you had the chance to know me. I love you. I miss you. I'm sorry that I'm such a disappointment.”
At this stage I was at university. I became brave and was Juanita often on campus. Having freedom and being me, this was a happy time. Then I started work, and was plagued with guilt again. Once again I tried to stop my secret life. I decided I would study to become a pastor. I thought this would give me answers. I also started strength training, thinking the bigger the muscle, the faster the woman in me would die.
I did my best to ignore the longing. I was once again seeing a therapist and on medication. I never finished Bible school. People’s judgement became too much.
At this stage I was a big man, over 100kg. I could squat four times my body weight. I bench pressed 200kg easily. I was invited to strongman competitions at the gym. I was never happy. One day, walking out of the shower, I saw my body, and with shock and shuddering I screamed at the mirror, “What have I done?” I never touched a weight again.
Because the depression deepened, I opened up to people in the church. At first I was accepted, but then they pushed me to go for "bevryding". This is like exorcism. They believed I was possessed by demons. It was hard to swallow. Dawid the man, was aggressive, depressed and wanted to die. Juanita, the woman, was full of joy and love and wanted to live. After three months of nagging, I submitted to them to try to free me of my demons. It was a day I want to forget; people I want to forget. I lived as Dawid for about four months. I had suicide note number three written by then, but a friend came to my rescue.
She helped me become Juanita again. That day, it felt as if the chains were cut off. I went for my first-ever photo shoot as Juanita. I wanted photos to remember the woman in me. Two ladies actually met Dawid before the shoot. Afterwards, they took me aside and asked me to promise that I would continue to be Juanita. I think they saw the difference. I was 29 years old. It was the first time that someone, a woman, said I was beautiful.
After that day, I tried to be Juanita as often as possible. I had friends that accepted me, but I turned my back on Dawid's friends. More and more my friends motivated me to start my transition. Even dressed as a ‘man’ I was Juanita for them. They knew my heart and soul.
I decided to transition in December 2011 because I became so depressed, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would try suicide again. I knew I would not fail like I did as a child. In the end it was a choice between being male and knowing I would kill myself, or being true to myself and wanting to live.
My Transition Story
In January 2012 I began my transition: laser hair removal and weekly psychologist sessions. After three months I started seeing a psychiatrist. In the very first session he approved full hormone treatment. I was so happy.
But days later my car was written off in an accident. Again I thought I was being punished. The thought of being a man filled me with disgust and suicidal thoughts returned. I was in survival mode, praying and crying. Only a year later did my transition get back on track again.
At the end of July 2013 I saw an endocrinologist for the first time. She examined me and noticed a scar between my legs. I told her that my parents and GP told me I had had a hernia operation when I was small.
The doctor told me my male genitalia were a lot smaller than normal. She confirmed breast development and that I was already a B-cup. She didn’t find any proof of a hernia operation and scheduled a sonar to verify this. She also told me my scar was unnatural; that she had never seen such a scar.
She referred me to an academic hospital for further tests. These confirmed that I never had a hernia operation.
I was then referred to see a psychiatrist. While waiting to see the psychiatrist, I opened the endocrinologist’s reference letter. I was shocked to read that I had female genitalia. Following the tests, it appeared I was born with both genitalia. The scar is the only evidence of something done to me when I was little, most likely normalization surgery. Doctors diagnosed me with Disorder of Sex Development. I was born intersex and instead of allowing me to grow up and self-identify, my parents or doctors decided to make me male. Although my chromosome results are male, the issue my doctors had was the fact that my hormone levels were more female orientated and the genitals I was left with after the operation were underdeveloped. It remains a grey area in my life without clear answers.
I was very annoyed knowing that my parents and doctors probably caused the struggles I've had for 35 years. The wrong decisions were made regarding who I am, causing most of the pain I've had to face in my life. Not to mention the hell I had to go through with the church.
For the next couple of months I had to undergo various medical tests as well as a psychiatric evaluation. Private medical care was so much better compared to being treated at a public hospital. I was slowly learning how the doctors at public hospitals were gatekeepers while private doctors functioned more like facilitators to help you achieve your goal. I didn't have the funds for my transition, so I was stuck at the academic hospital.
Despite promises that were made that I would be placed on Hormone Replacement Therapy if I passed all my medical tests and psychiatric evaluation, I was informed that a medical panel at the hospital would need to approve my treatments. Seven months after I started my journey, the hospital panel denied my hormone treatment, but approved my surgery within 6 months. I wasn't happy, although most people in my life were happy. I knew promises of surgery was a lie because most public hospitals had extremely long waiting lists. It felt as if this was a ploy to discourage me.
I made the unpopular decision to start hormone treatment by self medication. The majority of my friends were scared for my health, but I didn't care. I just knew I needed it.
I saw my doctors again five months later. I informed them I was using hormones and not planning on stopping. They decided to prescribe my medication for me out of fear for my health. Queries regarding the promised surgery came back negative and I knew this was another promise they wouldn't keep.
Tests were done to determine my hormone levels and I was happy when doctors confirmed that my hormone levels were 100% female. According to South African law, a person can legally change their gender if they have completed medical or surgical transition. I asked doctors to provide me with the medical reports I needed, but they refused stating it was hospital policy that I receive surgery first.
My financial situation changed early in 2015, and I turned my back on that hospital. It was two years since they promised me I would receive surgery within 6 months, and at that stage I was battling them for about a year for my medical reports. I was struggling with severe depression and I needed a fresh start to get my life and transition back on track again.
I got in touch with a wonderful group of medical professionals whose main focus was sexual health. They decided it was time to help Transgender and Intersex patients. I was one of their first Transgender patients.
My journey with them has been one that has changed my life. At the first hospital I had to present fully female, otherwise my commitment to my transition would be questioned. At My Sexual Health I met a team who didn't care how I presented myself and for the first time I presented myself as gender neutral. I will never forget the words of my therapist:"I don't need clothes to tell me you are a woman. I already know you are a woman."
In August 2015 my doctors at My Sexual Health gave me the medical reports I needed to change my ID at the Department of Home Affairs.
A few weeks later, I decided to go to the Department of Home Affairs to apply for my gender and name change. I was filled with nervous excitement because I knew this was the final step towards me living a normal life. At the entrance of Home Affairs, we had to complete an attendance register. Before I knew it, the female security guard started shouting at me. "Hey sir! You have to complete the attendance register." Being misgendered, I was already fighting my anxiety in front of everyone. I told the security that I did complete the attendance register and I entered the office. There weren't a lot of people in front of me, and as I entered the office I had no clue what to do or where to go. I turned around and went to the information desk and asked for assistance. She eventually called one of the officials to assist me. I told him I was there to apply for my gender and name change according to the law. I handed him my medical reports with a document about the law. In front of all the people in the office, he suddenly asked me if I was female. I informed him that I was. He asked me a second time and I told him that the documents I gave him confirmed I was female. I was battling the tears as he asked me a third time. They refused to assist me and I stormed out of the office feeling humiliated.
A friend of mine wrote an article for the news about my treatment at Home Affairs and they contacted me to assist me with my ID change. During the next few weeks I ran a social media campaign to put more pressure on Home Affairs to get my new ID.
In November 2015 I received my changed ID. During the next few months I had to change my details at my bank and the various service providers I had accounts with. All my details were successfully changed by the end of February 2016.
Life as Juanita
My transition has come at a price. I have lost friends. As a result, my world has become a lot smaller. My mom has accepted me to a point, but she refuses to use my name and female pronouns. I present gender neutral to survive in the traditional part of South Africa that I live in. Despite South Africa's very progressive LGBTI laws, the hearts and minds of our people aren't that progressive. While my battles with my gender identity used to be the cause for my struggles with anxiety and depression, it is now caused by society and the way people treat me. The abuse I've suffered at the hands of the church destroyed my faith. Despite the negativity, my transition saved my life.
I've now been in a relationship with a wonderful woman since August 2014. Being transgender, I always felt I was unlovable because I was different. She was the first person who ever showed me unconditional love and acceptance. Although our relationship has been long-distance, she has been there for me throughout the good and bad times of my transition. Looking forward to spend time with the love of my life in October 2016.
I will never have any regrets. Denying who you are, living a lie every day, is like poison slowly destroying your soul. There is nothing more freeing or liberating than living your life as your authentic self. It has been an incredibly difficult journey to get to where I am today, but I am grateful because my life has changed for the better. I used to hate myself, my body, but today I love the woman I've become and I love my body. I have found inner peace. I am incredibly happy.
Currently working towards saving money for my final surgery.