Age 20, Pretoria
I’m always confident. I always have had high self-esteem.
Steve carries herself with an air of confidence and chivalry, with a beaming smile and a firm handshake. When she is not studying Human Resources Management at the University of South Africa, she works as a nearly full-time volunteer for OUT, an LGBT organization based in Pretoria. There, she helps to mobilize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from all over the city and its surrounds for social events, sexual health workshops, and awareness campaigns. Steve is also involved with several other organizations in the Joint Working Group, a coalition of nine GLBT organizations in South Africa. When asked what it is that makes her such a powerful activist, she says, “For me, it started when I was young. I’m always confident. I always have had high self esteem.”
Steve has certainly beaten the odds in getting to where she is now. Orphaned at age seven, she grew up in a township home with her grandmother, aunt, uncle, and her two brothers. From a young age, Steve was quite masculine:
It started when I grew up. I didn’t like playing with girls; I didn’t like playing with girls’ toys. It was me playing with boys, boys, boys. And I struggled from the age of eleven up until age sixteen accepting the fact that I’m a girl. And for me, it was, you know, ‘I’m a boy.’
She knew what it was to be a lesbian, how being a lesbian is.
Age eleven is the year that Steve cites as the time when “everything changed.” She says that it was then that she began to realize that she felt different from other children her age, and had difficulty accepting that she was a girl. She began cutting her hair short, refusing to wear dresses at all, and asked to play a male character in the school play (which she did). When she began menstruating, she says, “I cried the first time. I cried! It was like, ‘What’s happening to me?'”
Others noticed Steve’s diversion from “typical” binary gender expression, as well. Her legal name is Mmapaseka, but has been given multiple male names through the course of her life. Her math teacher, who was also her soccer coach, called her “Rrapaseka,” the male equivalent of her birth name. The name “Steve” was given to her at age eleven by a friend of her uncle’s who she deeply admired. She says he began calling her by the name because “I was playing like a boy. [He said] Mmapaseka doesn’t suit you. Steve is better.”
It was not long after this that Steve was introduced to the term “lesbian.” She first heard the word in Grade 6, from an older girl at her school who identified as a lesbian. She was a soccer player, and talked to Steve about “what it was to be a lesbian, how being a lesbian is.” At first, she was repulsed by the idea, because “it was at the time when I thought I was just … a boy.” It was not until she was fourteen, when she began playing on a soccer team comprised mostly of masculine lesbian women, that she began to use the word for herself.
When she entered high school, girls were required to wear skirts, something that Steve refused to do. In protest, she burned all of the skirts she was given with an iron, telling her teachers, “I just can’t wear a burned skirt!” She became the first female at her school to wear trousers on a regular basis. Her family also expected her to wear dresses to church, something she attributes partially to their Tswana culture, “Most of the Tswanas in my community, they are more into discipline … you have to dress like this as a woman.”
We’ll show you who are the boys.
Steve’s life changed forever when, at age fifteen, she was raped by a family friend. “It was about my sexual orientation,” she says, “You know, the stigmatization in the community and the discrimination is there. Men in the community would say ‘Why do you want to be boys?’ And again, it would be that, ‘We’ll show you who are the boys.'” After it happened, Steve learned that she was pregnant, and was devastated. She wanted to have an abortion, “What am I gonna do with a kid when I’m a kid?”
Steve’s aunt, who has no children of her own, asked Steve to go through with the pregnancy so that she could raise the child. Steve decided to grant her request. “I decided, it’s fine, I’ll keep it, for her. For me, I’m not into that.” She says that the pregnancy forced her to accept and make peace with her femaleness. Her daughter turned four this year, and lives with Steve and her aunt. “She’s clever enough,” she says, “She sometimes calls me ‘Dad.’ She calls my girlfriend ‘Mother,’ and my aunt ‘Mother.'”
Many of Steve’s friends are also survivors of what is termed “corrective rape” in which men abuse lesbian women in order to “set them straight.” She says that it happens more to butch and masculine women:
They see me, I’m butch, masculine. They see my breasts and think, ‘What is she doing?’ Because of that, you’re trying to be a boy, and they want to remove that from you. I used to call myself a boy, and now I’m calling myself a lesbian woman. What’s the difference?
Steve identifies as a butch, masculine lesbian, keeps her head shaved, and sports the latest trends in men’s attire. Most of her friends are also butch/masculine lesbian women, and she generally prefers to spend her time with other queer/LGBT people:
Sometimes you get to a heterosexual environment [or] party, sometimes you’re not comfortable. I want to be in my comfort zone where I can drink all night and I will never be terrified by people or harassed by people.
Because of her masculine name and appearance, she is often perceived to be a man, something she says she enjoys: “I don’t prefer being seen as a girl … it’s like, [they think] I’m confused. And I’m not trying to confuse anyone. I know who I am.” In fact, she says that she likes it when people refer to her with male pronouns, but only when it is people that she is close to. She also says that she “gets irritated” when men do it, because she believes that it is often done to mock her. However, when women refer to her with male pronouns, she seems to see it as a sort of recognition of her masculinity, of how she is different from other female-bodied people:
We grow up in a society of male and female in a house. A family consists of a male and female. And when a girl has to have a partner, it’s a male. And other people, other women, sometimes they refer to me as male. I’m their man.
When asked if she has ever wanted to change her body in any way, she says:
Sometimes a thought comes, finally you can know that you are a lesbian woman, whatever. A thought comes in your mind sometimes … How would things be if I had a penis? For me, I’m sexually satisfied, but I’m saying that a thought comes sometimes … after a long time, how it would be, having sex, being on top, putting something besides your hands and all that in your partner … it’s a thought that if you think about it today, you won’t forget about it tomorrow. I’m saying, it’s not like I haven’t thought about it. And it’s not like I’m going to stop thinking about that.
Steve tried binding her chest with bandages once. Before she became pregnant with her daughter, she says that her breasts were easily concealed if she dressed like a man. With the pregnancy, however, her breasts grew substantially and she no longer “passes” as male as often as she did. It was at this point that she experimented with binding, but has not done it again. She makes no mention of disliking, wanting to remove, or concealing her breasts.
Since her first kiss with a girl at age eleven, all but one of Steve’s partners have referred to her as their “boyfriend.” She has never, and says that she will never be, involved with another butch/masculine-identified woman: “I prefer my women to be women. And I prefer myself to be me, a boy.”
Recently, Steve met Robert Hamblin from GenderDynamix. He was the first out FTM that she has met, and says that she did not feel a connection to his identity, although she notes that they have masculinity in common: “I take him as brother, friend. If somebody is butch, [or] masculine … I would prefer to call them my brother, my friend.”
Though in many ways she sees herself, or at least a part of herself as a “boy” in terms of gender presentation and her role in romantic relationships, Steve does not identify as transgender. Her childhood identity as a boy remains a part of her:
[I am] having to fight the fact that I used to be a boy, I used to call myself a boy, and now I’m calling myself a lesbian woman. What is the difference between the two? Yes, you’re growing up and all that. But there’s a past that’s attached to you. It’s going to be a part of me for my whole life.
[note_box]Steve has been interviewed by Harper B. Keenan. The interview is part of the following publication:
Harper B. Keenan
Eugene Lang College: The New School for Liberal Arts
School for International Training
South Africa: Reconciliation and Development
Advised by: Dr. Cheryl Stobie, UKZN, Pietermaritzburg[/note_box]