ICD WORKSHOP - THEMBANI VELA
by Thembani Vela
South Africa, 22 October 2015
In so many ways, segregation shaped me and education liberated me. The legal battle against the discrimination of LGBTI people and HIV positive people is half won but the community battle against stigma still persists. I am an intersex person, a biological state which means I am born with sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male. Intersex is congenital difference in physical sex characteristics, the difference can manifest in chromosomes, reproductive system, and genitalia. Intersex people have always been considered taboos and mysteries in their communities, as a result they have been at the receiving end of stigma and discrimination.
This stigma has more than doubled for me because I am HIV positive and I identify as a lesbian. I was born in a country that is highly intolerant of LGBTI people; at some point our president said gays and lesbians are worse than pigs and dogs, my country still does not recognize the existence of intersex people, there are no laws, policies or guidelines that seek to protect the rights of intersex people. I was born in Zimbabwe. Being intersex might be tough at times but I also believe that things get better with time, you grow as an individual and you learn to love and accept yourself. It was not easy in my case; I grew up in the rural areas of Zimbabwe where no one had any knowledge about intersex issues. It was seen as uncommon, people didn’t talk about it in public and it was regarded taboo to even try and talk about it.
For years I felt like an outcast, I felt that I didn’t belong there. I missed out on many things that young kids do. I was deprived of proper, precious and important privileges of childhood and innocence. I wasn’t allowed to play, undress or even swim with other kids because my genitalia looked different from theirs. There are times when I wish I could go back and be a child again, somehow I believe that I would do it differently, I would love myself, I would play more and would I accept myself earlier. Several operations were performed to try “normalize” me, I still do’t know what “normal” means. My parents fought all the time because they disagreed on my gender of rearing , mom wanted me to be raised as a girl and dad wanted to raise a boy. At one stage I changed names from THEMBA (a male name) to THEMBELANI (a gender neutral name) and then to THEMBANI (a female name). The operations didn’t help much; all they did was to remove my gonads without my full understanding and knowledge, I think they took advantage of the fact that neither my parents or I knew anything about intersex and of the fact that I didn’t know or understand my own body. Had I known then what I know now, I would have not let them remove my gonads.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, I always thought I was the only person that was intersex, I didn’t know the word “intersex” until I came to South Africa and met other intersex people. They shared information with me and I finally understood my body and accepted my intersex status .Now I am proud to say l am intersex and lesbian, being part of the LGBTI community has offered me some sense of empowerment, even though there are times we get judged by the LGBT community as intersex people. “Intersexphobia” does not only exist in the broader community but in the LGBT community as well I still have a long way to go despite the difficulties I faced in my life.
My most recent difficulty was finding out that I’m HIV positive. It was like jumping from the frying pan to the fire. Stigma upon stigma! It really hit me hard but with the support of the family and friends, I have learnt to accept and live a positive life. The Jamaican singer Buju Banton said “It is not an easy road” and yes, for sure it’s not an easy road, but I’m glad I’m walking towards the right direction. To be prepared is half the victory. I AM MYSELF…… I AM NOT ASHAMED TO SAY;
I AM INTERSEX, I AM LESBIAN AND I AM HIV POSITIVE.