Gender DynamiX (GDX), the first registered African-based organisation focusing solely on the trans community, was founded in South Africa by cis woman, Liesl Theron, and her trans partner, Lex Kirsten in July 2005.
Due to work insecurity and a lack of knowledge about the employment rights of trans persons, the cis-trans couple decided that Liesl would, during the beginning years of GDX’s existence, be known as the ‘founder’ in order to allow Lex employment security.
Liesl and Lex’s relationship lasted until 2007, but they remained friends and Lex remains supportive of GDX. The inaugural Board meeting took place in July 2006.
In her reflections about the founding of Gender DynamiX, Liesl shared her own story:
“I cannot separate the story of the founding of Gender DynamiX from my own story.
My first relationship with a trans man was in the mid-1990s. I knew nothing about transgender, activism, feminism or even the LGBT movement. (more info needed)
In 2003, thirteen years later, and, after I had moved far away to Cape Town, a friend who knew about my previous trans partner, got in contact with me to tell me that they had a friend who was considering transitioning but had no information or idea how to go ahead with the process. My friend was hoping that I could share information or advice with this person because back then, South Africa didn’t have an organization that focused on transgender and there was no group or organisation this person could turn to for medical or legal information or help.
It is also important to remember at that time there was the internet, but it was quite limited back then. Not many people in South Africa had a home computer, let alone one that was connected to the internet. It was a real privilege to have that. Mobile phones and social media were also not developed as it is today. There were no smartphones, that could do online searches. I realised that I could potentially have some answers and I agreed to meet him. We started chatting and really got on well. So well, actually, that Lex became my second trans partner.
As soon as we attempted to get information from state departments about the transitioning process, I became aware of the differences in service delivery and access points in the country. There were no guidelines in the public health system. There were no guidelines or procedures at the Department of Home Affairs either, which is where citizens have to register all personal information and obtain birth certificates and Identity documents.
We discovered that information about transitioning was hidden so far away, it was as if it was a big secret not to be spoken about. Lex felt isolated, yet we knew there had to be other trans people in the country who were dealing with the same issues. I knew there were more people, because not only was I in a previous trans relationship, I remember my ex talking about other trans people in the waiting room at the hospital during his transitioning time in Pretoria.
I started to search online for more information, about transgender in general, about activism, and about how it is in other countries. Lex worked night shifts every second week and there was an internet café in our neighbourhood with a nighttime special between 8 pm and 8 am where you only had to pay for the first 3 hours. So, I made use of that special and when he went in the evening to his night shift job, I went onto my own “night shift job” searching information online, right through the night.
I learned that, during the mid-1970s even the 80s, the international guidance given by psychologists and psychiatrists to trans persons was that after the person medically and surgically transitioned, it would be better for everyone if they could “disappear”. The advice was that only family members should know about it and that it would be better if the person could start with new friends, a new job, in a new city – if they could emigrate it would be even better. I finally realized why it was so difficult to find first-hand information from other trans persons who already transitioned. Every trans person literally disappeared together with their information. Every trans person who wants to transition basically had to start the path by themselves as if they were the first person to go through the process. That also meant there was no support system in place.
After two years of gathering information, we decided to start a system of information sharing. We reached out to all the possible networks and LGBT organisations we could think of and we started spreading the information through them to reach trans people. The message was simple: Get in touch with me if you need information and help me to create a database of information to assist others in turn.
Initially, we just thought of it as the creation of a database, or data service, and did not even know that what we were doing was going to spiral into becoming the first non-profit trans organisation in Africa!
Soon after we started spreading the word, people started contacting me with requests for information in general, or how to get access to doctors, psychologists, or how to change the gender on their legal paperwork. I was surprised when we were contacted with calls from parents, about their trans child. We also received requests for legal advice, as lots of trans people were unfairly dismissed from work if they were outed or decided to come out.
I would approach labour lawyers to ask them for assistance. They would reply: “Sorry, I am not an expert in that field, I can’t help you”. To which I would reply, “You are an expert in labour law. I know all the transgender-related terminology and information you need to know. I have lists of examples of case law in other countries, of how labour cases were won in courts, together we can do it. You can become an expert in South Africa on this topic. We need you to apply your common sense to the Labor Law you already know and combine it with South Africa’s Constitution and Human Rights”. I did not take “No”, for an answer in those days.
We realised that our ‘database’ was far more than that and after I hosted the ‘Gender Diversity Awareness Workshop’ at the GHMCC which led to the formation of Gender DynamiX. Right from the start I got personally involved in assisting assist trans asylum seekers from other African countries who flee to South Africa, for various reasons: access to transitioning, or an unbearable situation in their own country, as in many African countries any LGBT person can go to jail and in some cases receive the death sentence.
Others came to South Africa in their hopes of the promise of Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” and our liberal Constitution, the first in the world to stipulate there will be no discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender. We gave workshops, like general awareness raising to the public, family, friends, and even journalists.
Because there was so much secrecy and public stigma at the time, Lex did not want to be publicly involved or have it known publicly that he was part of it –, he was scared he would lose his job.
And that is how the history of the start of the African trans movement was on the foundation of a cisgender person starting it – even though, actually it was both of us who started. Me with grit and perseverance, and Lex funding our initial work for which he was eventually publicly acknowledged when he received the Inyathelo Philanthropy Award.
In the beginning years of Gender DynamiX the language was still “FTM” and “MTF” and really considered in terms of a strict binary. It was not like how it is today”.