Elise Bishop was one of the first transgender South Africans to go public about her transition and gender affirmation surgery. She’s chronicled this life journey in her new memoir.
It’s easy to fall in love with Elise Bishop. Talking to her is a lot like sharing wisdom and laughter with a favourite aunt over a lekker cup of boere koffie.
She is adamant that we refer to her gender affirmation surgery as a “sex change” – because that was what it was called all the way back in the 1970s when she went under the knife in a gruelling operation that lasted around eight hours.
“I was the first sex change person that came out into the open, and was taken up in the media in South Africa,” she says, “The Rapport published excerpts of my life story for seven Sundays in a row.”
Bishop chronicles her life journey in her autobiography, Twee Lewens. She takes the reader from her fascination with “dressing like a girl” as a toddler, through to her time in the army, and her transition from living as a man to a woman.
“You won’t believe it, but South Africa was known as one of the leaders in sex change surgery when I had my operation,” reveals the 70-year-old, “And at the time it was actually legal to be able to change your name and gender from birth certificate to ID document. I had no problem getting that done.”
“You are a person with emotions. You are not a threat to anybody.”
Progressive for an incredibly conservative South Africa at the time. Bishop describes the tough process of having to live fully as a woman and being regularly evaluated by a psychiatrist and psychologist before the surgery could be approved.
What’s more, Bishop had her surgery done in what was once the HF Verwoerd Hospital (now the Steve Biko Academic Hospital) in Pretoria – a public hospital.
Today, the average waiting list for gender affirmation surgery in South Africa’s public hospitals is a shocking 25 years long, which means that medical students are missing out on learning more about gender affirmation. Medical aids generally view gender affirmation surgery as “cosmetic”, not an essential medical service, and the cost is prohibitive – and excludes the post operative recovery and rehab.
“There is a lot you have to adapt to after your sex change operation,” Bishops says, “It’s like learning a whole new language. You need to adapt to life as a woman.”
Bishop speaks of going through the tough evaluation process before being permitted to have the surgery. “I had to live as a woman 24 hours a day. I had to eat, sleep and work as a woman. I had to go out on dates with men. Then I would have to sit with the psychiatrist and tell him about what I experienced and all of what I felt. This was all to make sure you are a suitable candidate for the operation and that you will succeed in living as a woman,” she says.
Bishop is by no means a stranger to adversity. Her transformation cost her jobs and relationships. She is a proud champion for acceptance of gay and trans people, as well as the empowerment and upliftment of women in South Africa.
“Acceptance of homosexuality to this day faces opposition – for that matter, females don’t have equal standing so it must be borne in mind that to accept transgender people still requires many mountains to be climbed. Apathy cannot be allowed. One needs to impress on the man in the street that you are a person with emotions. You are not a threat to anybody,” she says.
Elise Bishop’s book, Twee Lewens is available through Hemel & See Books at R300. Order here