South African transgender pilot fights to return to the skies

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Transgender pilot Kailer Smit says the South African Civil Aviation Authority has failed to justify its decision to bar him from flying

An experienced South African transgender pilot says that his flying career has been unfairly grounded by the aviation authorities due to his gender identity.

Kailer Smit, 32, based in Pretoria, dreamed of becoming a pilot from a young age. “It was on December 12, 2001, during a flight with my family as a ten-year-old, that I decided this is what I want to do for a living,” he recalls.

Smit realised his dream and has been making a living as a pilot since 2015, flying charter, cargo, emergency aid, and medevac flights. Holding an airline transport pilot license, he has accumulated 2,500 hours of flight time, both as a contract pilot across Africa and as a flight instructor who has trained dozens of pilots.

Before beginning testosterone hormone replacement therapy in 2017, Smit verified with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) that this treatment was approved for aviation personnel.

He was given the go-ahead and has since openly disclosed his use of testosterone for gender affirmation treatment in his subsequent annual medical assessments without any issues.

Grounded for more than 9 months

However, Smit’s career came crashing down earlier this year after his latest medical assessment in January. To his shock, the SACAA refused to clear him for flight.

In a letter dated March 22, the authority stated: “The medical evidence reveals a history of Gender Affirmation Treatment. Based on the complete review of the available medical evidence, the panel found you to be Medically Temporary Unfit to exercise the privileges of the class of license you applied for.”

Smit appealed the decision and was instructed to undergo a battery of psychological tests. He states that the results indicated he was medically and psychologically fit to fly, as declared by two independent psychologists.

However, the SACAA rejected the recommendations, citing inconsistencies in the interpretation of the reports without specifying the nature of these inconsistencies. Smit is again appealing the decision and has sought legal representation in his battle to resume flying.

Struggling to make ends meet

“Since January 2023, I have been on unpaid leave, accumulating medical bills for assessments and legal fees to fight SACAA. I have not been able to work and have been teetering on the edge of maintaining a roof over my head, not to mention food in my stomach,” says Smit.

“I have tried to seek other work and have been to dozens of interviews, but I lack experience in other fields, making me an un-hirable candidate.”

Smit is “incredibly frustrated” by the situation but considers himself fortunate to have support from friends and family. He believes that transphobia and ignorance are behind the decision to ground him.

“My hormone treatment is neither new nor changed and has been openly disclosed for years. Why now? If I were a cis male on hormone treatment, would I need to undergo psychological assessments? If I were someone on birth control, a hormonal treatment, would I be sent for psych evaluations? Where is the reason?” he asks.

More questions than answers

In an email response to our questions, SACAA Communications Officer Marie Bray emphasised that all medical decisions are made following applicable regulations and protocols in line with international best practices. She, however, failed to indicate, as requested what these regulations and protocols are in terms of how they relate to Smit’s case.

When asked if the SACAA has a policy on transgender pilots or pilots undergoing gender affirmation treatment, Bray replied that, “There are no regulations or protocols specific to individual’s sexual orientation.”

She further stated: “It is important to note that all decisions made by the AMC (Aeromedical Committee) are based solely on medical information that is presented and reviewed and NEVER on the sexual orientation of an applicant.”

Bray added that “the applicant in question has appealed the decision of the AMC and the appeal process is underway.”

The SACAA did not respond when MambaOnline pointed out that Smit’s case has nothing to do with his sexual orientation but rather his gender identity.

“Them not knowing the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation is in itself quite problematic,” asserts Smit. He says that the SACAA has expressed it’s concern about mood instability when starting hormone treatment, but Smit argues that this should not be relevant for someone like him who’s been receiving hormone replacement therapy for six years.

Flying a new path for transgender pilots

While the SACAA seemingly lacks guidelines for transgender pilots, other aviation authorities have established them.

In the United States, transgender pilots diagnosed with gender dysphoria must provide the Federal Aviation Administration with a Gender Dysphoria Mental Health Status Report from a mental health professional. However, this report is not needed if the candidate has been on hormone replacement therapy for over five years, similar to Smit’s case.

India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation also introduced guidelines in 2022, stating that transgender candidates who have undergone hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery more than five years ago can be deemed medically fit after clearing mental health screenings aligned with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Despite the challenges he’s facing, Smit remains committed to regaining his pilot’s license and returning to the skies. “I see this as an opportunity to make vital changes in the aviation industry. I am not the first person this happened to, but I will be the last,” he vows.

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