Identity and gender play such a pivotal role in the manner in which individuals navigate and craft their definition of who they are. When one is born into a body which they do not identify with, they often face conflict and rejection from society. Some people suffer in silence and some take the steps and become who they truly are. In this piece, Mokgadi Mashele narrates the story of one of her close friends

When everyone rejoiced during my time of birth, I cried.

To them it was an outburst of joy, a beautiful baby girl, but I cried because I was trapped, I hated watching myself grow in that strange body. Breasts, hips, menstruation. It was painful. My soul was imprisoned, and my spirit suffered.

Growing up in a small village of Dzulanifhasi, on the far east of Venda, was the greatest challenge for me. My childhood was filled with confusion, rejection and discrimination. I was caught up in a world where no one seemed to understand me. I was often involved in fights with boys and refused to wear dresses and skirts. I wanted so desperately to be a boy and could not understand why the boys I played with had different body parts to me. My classmates would jeer and make fun of me for not knowing where I belonged. It was a lonely time.

In childhood confusion I would ask my mother for answers, and her answer would always be simple, to the point: I was a girl. Like a universal truth that I had no choice but to accept. My parents were very worried about me.

Born into a Christian family was also a challenge because I had to live by the Good Book and become who and what God created me to be. My parents did not accept that I was different. To them my desire to be a boy was the work of an evil spirit, luring me on to the wrong path. But in the privacy of my room I would stand in front of the mirror and know that I was not what I saw in that reflection. Rather, I was the picture I had in my head.

When my father got a job in the city, we had to relocate, and I was very excited. I was in my early teenage years at the time and moving out of the village felt like a much-needed escape. It meant moving away from everyone who did not understand me, away from the nasty comments, the sneers and giggles. It also meant a fresh start, new friends, people who would understand me. Little did I know that my situation would get worse before it would get better.

People in my new neighbourhood did not understand me neither did they like me for who and what I was. They often wondered why I wore big jerseys on hot summer’s days and others called me an ugly girl. There were days I would cry alone in my room because of the treatment I got.

In 2015, shortly after my final year at school I went to study at the University of the Free State. Being there was not easy either. Making friends was never an easy process so I spent most of my time alone browsing the internet. It was there where I was introduced to the term used to describe people like me. People who felt they were born in the wrong bodies. I used the internet to educate myself about the transgender community and found out that it is possible to transition, to become the gender I always knew I was. I then embarked on the most rewarding journey of my life, the journey to becoming the man I had always wanted to be.

I started hormone replacement therapy soon after graduating from university, which helped me to develop the male secondary sexual characteristics: a deepened voice, muscle development, broad shoulders, and hair growth on my chest, legs, arms and face. A bonus was when my menstruation cycle stopped as a result of the therapy. I then became confident enough to talk about it. Firstly, I approached a psychologist at school and started talking about everything I went through as a child, I explained to him how hard it was for people to understand me, how ugly I felt in breasts and how I wish I never had to go through the menstruation cycle. I also started bodybuilding which helped my physical appearance to match my gender identity.

My journey has just begun. It is not over yet. I am still on a process of changing my birth name Lufuno, which means love, to Phenyo, which means conqueror. I also want to undergo a surgical transition to remove and replace my organs. My wish is to educate small communities like Dzulanifhasi, parents, teachers and other people who are like me about the Transgender community. I was lucky enough because I was never a suicidal person, I went through a lot but ending my life never came to mind for me. My parents finally accepted that I am a different child and gave me all the love and support I needed through my journey of transitioning. The statistics show that 8 to 10 people end their lives every day everywhere around the country as a result of rejection, discrimination, and other contributory factors.

Therefore, I urge people to seek for help, talk to people and avoid bottling things up.