Admittedly, when I learned I’d been accepted as one of the 1000 delegates selected to participate in the prestigious 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship, I had some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was quite elated – I recognized my selection as a remarkable achievement, and a significant opportunity, and I was thrilled and delighted. On the other hand, I was a little bit apprehensive; I’d been placed at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
Now, before you take offence, let me give you some context. As someone who has never resided in the US, my understanding of American politics and geography is rather limited. The email said “Columbus, Ohio” – what I saw, however was “Ohio. Midwest. Prejudice and social conservatism and probably a bunch of queer- and trans-phobia”.
I quickly did some research and found that Columbus is a rather progressive city, with a vibrant queer community of its own. And although I learned that Ohio itself does not have legislated protections for transgender people, Columbus does.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
The fact of the matter is that I’m pretty open about who I am. I call myself a storyteller; it’s the particular branding I like to use for my work as an activist and human rights defender. The work I do means that I’m really out about my identity. You might not be able to tell that I’m trans just by looking at me – and I enjoy a lot of privilege because of that – but everything I do revolves around living an open life.
I landed in Columbus the day before Pride. Despite 20+ hours of continuous travel time, and the attendant exhaustion that comes with that, I marched in the parade. There’s even a photograph floating around the internet of a very scantily-clad me smiling broadly with my arm wrapped around Brutus Buckeye.
Pride was a very empowering and affirming experience for me. In my home country of South Africa, we do have Pride. We have several Prides in fact. But they are far smaller in scale, and they tend to be divisive rather than inclusive. Many people are made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, based on the intersectionality of their identities.
So, as you can imagine, Columbus Pride was a breath of fresh air, and the perfect way for me to begin my stay in the US, especially given the apprehensions I’d had prior to travelling.
As you might know, South Africa has a long legacy of oppression and discrimination. Apartheid might have fallen, but as a nation, we still struggle to overcome its lingering effects. When the country introduced a new constitution, after our first free elections more than two decades ago, it was widely billed as one of the most progressive governing legal texts in existence.
Section 9 of the South African constitution, a subsection of the Bill of Rights, lists a variety of legal protections against discrimination on a wide variety of grounds – including sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion and others.
When I came out as trans, a little over a year ago, Section 9 didn’t help me keep my job. I left of my own volition, because the possibility of an acrimonious legal battle was not something I found particularly appealing, especially since I didn’t want to sour the relations with my former employer. It was far simpler just to walk away quietly.
When I approached a variety of academic departments at different Universities, only to be told by the consultants and professors that they weren’t ready to work with a trans colleague – that I wouldn’t be safe in their departments – Section 9 didn’t help me.
When I submitted job application after job application, forced to disclose on my cover letter that I was trans because I was still awaiting a legal name change, and I never got called to an interview, Section 9 didn’t help me.
Legal protections are important, make no mistake. Having the legal provision to change my name and gender marker is something many trans people around the globe lack; it might have taken a year for those changes to be processed, but at least I could have it done. And yes, should I ever be fired, or harassed, or otherwise targeted or discriminated against as a direct result of my gender identity or sexual orientation, then there will be some recourse for me.
But prejudice is smart, and prejudice is adaptive. Those who bear hate in their hearts find ways to act on that hate, without ever being overt about their motivations. Society and culture play a significant role in determining the practical level of comfort and safety for queer folk, wherever they may be. If social attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) minorities are hateful, any legal protections that do exist will be limited in their usefulness.
The fact of the matter is that cultural competency and legislation need to move forward together. Legal protections form a barrier of sorts; a final recourse against abuse or discrimination, and often a difficult one to pursue. Remember that often the burden of proof, especially when it comes to discrimination, lands squarely upon the sufferer of said abuse.
Columbus Pride was important for me – because I felt safe, out in the open. I felt like I wasn’t reliant on legislation for my personal safety. I felt respected and secure, despite my blatant, obvious queerness. As queer folk, we’re often accustomed to having to seek out specific safe spaces. Yet, here I was, standing in the middle of a main road, in a bustling city center, celebrating my identity.
It was with no small quantity of dismay that I learned Ohio had added its name to a list of US states suing the federal government over its directive that transgender school-goers should be allowed to use whichever facilities match their gender identity.
The idea behind South Africa’s constitution is that everyone is deserving of dignity, respect, and safety. Culturally, we may have some catching up to do – there are definitely areas in the country where one might be very much at risk on the basis of one’s identity. But we’ve gone on the record as saying that we believe human rights abuses are unacceptable, even if their targets are SOGI minorities.
And then here, in the US, where I’d felt such a strong sense of community, and solidarity – especially considering that Columbus Pride took place in the wake of the devastating Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub – lawmakers are actively seeking means to dispel or combat legal protections.
Now, again, I’m not an expert in legal matters, especially those that relate to the US. What I do know, as a human rights defender, is that social progress is achieved through a combination of evolving values and concomitant changes in legislation, that result in increased freedom, liberty, dignity and access for human beings across the board.
Of course, I’m no mind-reader, and I don’t know the motivation behind the moves being made by Attorney General Dewine. But it seems, to an outside eye, that it’s an attempt to halt progress in establishing legal protections for human rights and, in so doing, drag societal values back into their regressive past at the same time.
Anastacia Tomson is a storyteller and activist, in the field of queer and trans rights. Trained as a medical doctor in her home country of South Africa, she runs sensitisation and competency workshops for service providers, partners with other NGOs in order to educate and empower queer constituents, and engages with media outlets and mainstream society in an effort to improve understanding of queer issues, and access to services and equal rights for LGBTQIA people. Her memoir, Always Anastacia, in which she details her own experiences of transition, was published in May 2016 and is available worldwide in print and as an eBook. Anastacia maintains an active presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), as well as a regular blog.