Pic: Robert Hamblin
I’m Vanya. I was born in January 1985 at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. I alternate my names. I use Vanya for my modelling career and I use Azania at home. Azania has political connotations for me. It’s a statement that regardless of who I am, I’m still pretty much a child of Africa and a child of the soil. Vanya is my blonde name – it’s easy for the modelling industry.
I went to Barnarto High and I had an attitude from day one. I was very openly gay. I have never been closeted because the man who raised me could sense that I was different from my infant years. He coached me not to take nonsense from anybody and to be very independent, to be aggressively independent if need be.
We had a social worker at school and we worked through my feelings. When I told her she started crying and I couldn’t understand her tears. I didn’t understand whether they were tears of shame or what the tears were about. She told me she had been waiting for me to confide in her and we got in contact with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as a transsexual. That was when I was in grade 10. Hormone therapy came later, in grade 10, because at the time I started growing a beard, my voice was breaking and my shoulders were growing horizontal. You can’t really start taking them until you have grown to your full height because once you start taking the hormones you can’t grow any taller. So we had to wait and he put me on Androcur, which shrinks your testicles and renders them useless. Officially I started taking oestrogen at the end of grade 11.
My boobs were important in the sense that, before then, my brain and my body were two separate things and I’ve always tried to bring them together. Twice I tried to castrate myself, once in grade 6 and once in grade 9. So, when my breasts started growing it was reassuring for me that my mental and my physical were coming together. I would look at myself in the mirror – fine, there was a penis there but everything else was coming together. I didn’t mind my body as much, I didn’t loathe my body as much.
I had my testicles removed in 2005 while I was still at school because it aids in hormonal therapy. The expensive part is the anti-oestrogen that stops your testicles from functioning. I could then stop taking the Androcur, which was costing R600 student at the time and my family was not involved at all in my sexuality. They just saw the result of everything but they didn’t ask me anything. During my matric year, I got a scholarship from an accounting firm to pay for my varsity fees and after I had paid my fees I decided that I was going to raise the capital for the operation by living at home. Thus I used the bursary money for my operation.
After I matriculated, I went to Midrand University. The first week was fine because nobody knew me. I had started on the hormone pills and they were working pretty well. No-one could tell at first unless they had a very experienced eye. And then, the second week, a boy I went to high school with showed up. And all of a sudden I would be walking and people would start taking out their cell phones and taking pictures of me. Then I knew it was show time and everybody knew. For most of my life I had always been getting a lot of attention, whether because of my academics or my sexuality. Even now, as a woman, as a model, I still get attention.
Midrand is a significant place for me because that is where I started my tertiary life, where I started wearing mini skirts and make-up and that is where Azania in transition became Azania the woman.
Having a vagina does not necessarily make me a woman just as having a penis does not make me a man. While growing up my focus was that I needed to have a vagina and that was going to make me a woman. By the time I reached adulthood, however, it had become an irrelevant part of my anatomy because I’m very comfortable with my body right now. My main concern was my body; I didn’t want to look at my body and see a man there. Obviously, I was born a male and there are always going to be characteristics of a man. I’m always going to be androgynous one way or another, which I have come to terms with. But in terms of the sex-change, the full sex-change, I think if I do that I won’t be doing it for myself, I will be doing it to please someone else, because I’m a full woman, and I’m comfortable with my body, I really am.
I found that when I was still very manly, I was accepted easily into the gay society hence I went to gay clubs. But with the change I found that the acceptance had shifted, I would be there and I would feel out of place mainly because I’d have lesbian ladies asking me out. I was normal and normal was boring for me so I started going to straight clubs, having straight boyfriends. That’s when the misery started for me.
I have different feelings about my sexuality and sexual orientation and that is when being a transsexual began to work against me. I have a lovely outer appearance, I would look at myself and would be happy with what I see, but it still goes back to the fact that I’m a transsexual. I was attracting straight men. It was not easy because I still have a penis. It gets really lonely. I can’t date much and I can’t socialise that much anymore. I have to be very careful with everything and all of sudden I envy my gay friends because if a man approaches another man it means he’s gay. If a man approaches me he thinks I’m a woman so I have to paint that picture for him and it gets dangerous and very lonely.
There were two incidents in short succession that changed a lot of things for me. In Soweto they know me because I spent a lot of time there over the years. They saw me grow up but all of a sudden when I came this time I had boobs. I was wearing a skirt now and naturally people became curious about me. So, on New Year’s Eve, although I was not in the mood for partying, I went to my friend’s house where there was a party but I went to her cottage and slept. The next thing, I woke up and there was this guy trying to have sex with me but I locked my anus. I was wearing a skirt so it was easy for him to just push it up. The room was dark and I was fighting this guy off while concentrating on locking my anus, and I asked myself why this guy seems to be so strong, because as much as I’m a woman and I’m not as strong as I used to be, I can still stand up for myself. Suddenly he stopped what he is doing and I thought it was over. By that time my clothes were lying all over the floor.
“When I find somebody was just using me for sex or as an experiment it’s painful. It hurts…”
There was a moment’s rest, then I felt a part of an elbow on my neck. I screamed and thought maybe it was a joke. I couldn’t tell who he was. I kept thinking it was my friend’s boyfriend because he had been eyeing me throughout the day. I kept on saying, “I can’t do this to my friend; you are my friend’s boyfriend” but he started choking me and I started to black out. And he says to me, “Why did you refuse in the first place?” then he goes back to choking me. My friend’s boyfriend came into the cottage and he stopped the man. And when he switched on the light there were actually six boys, hence the strength because others were holding my legs. I’d never been a victim of violence before because, as much as my family isn’t very involved in my life, they are extremely protective of me.
A few months later, in June, I was in Tembisa, which is 20 minutes from my house but I’d never been there before. I