March 24, 2013 – Zen Entertainment
ZEN ENTERTAINMENT had the enormous pleasure of interviewing LGBTI and Human rights activist ,writer and well-known blogger Christina Engela to find out more about herself, her living as a trans–woman and her views on certain matters within the gay community.
-Firstly tell our readers more about yourself ?
My name is Christina Engela. Most people call me Tina or Chrissy, I don’t mind either. I was born in PE and have lived here all my life. Gareth Cliff might call it the “armpit of South Africa”, and he may even be right – but it’s still home! I went to Greenwood Primary starting in Sub A in 1979 until Std 1, when I went to Cape Receife in the middle of the year until 1983. Then in Std 4 I went back to Greenwood again. In 1986 I went to Pearson High in Summerstrand and matriculated in 1991. I was a bit of an underachiever at school, preferring to hang back in the shadows. I got a certificate once for diligence – which pretty much describes me. I just don’t quit. No matter how many times life knocks me flat, I get right back up again. After school I went straight into the army, having been drafted for national service at the start of 1992. For a number of years all my after school studies were military-oriented. Surprisingly, not even the army could defeat me, even though I was bitterly unhappy at times. In the course of my military career spanning 17 years, I was promoted twice, and received numerous awards, and 3 medals. In 2009 I took a civilian job with the military and have been there ever since. In 1999 I qualified as a computer technician through COMPTIA, and did an information systems security course through SITA in 2003. In 2007 I completed three courses in graphic design, web design and programming. In my work I have done jobs that span everything from management, IT support, stores and logistics, photography, graphic and web design, programming and training.
-You are a trans-woman living in Port Elizabeth , let’s go back before your transgender operation ,when you were still living as a young male. How did you as a young male came out to your family and friends by telling them you decided to do a trans from male to female?
I first came out as being transgender in 1999, by which time I was already 26 years old and had been married for almost 3 years. Because my wife at the time reacted so badly to my news that I wanted to undergo gender reassignment, and because I cared deeply for her and wanted our relationship to survive my transition, I agreed to abandon arrangements for my transition to begin, at least for a year – while I would have time to work on her to get her to soften to the idea. This never happened, and within 6 months I had returned to planning my transition. In 2000 I finally started hormones and told her. She reacted very badly and for the next 6 months we hardly spoke except to fight and argue. When I told my mother, things got hairy on that side for a while too, as she took sides with my wife. For some time they took turns in harassing me when I got home, and I would ask for after hours work just to avoid going home. I moved out of the bedroom and moved into the guest bedroom. By December 2000 I was divorced, and for the next two years my mother struggled to accept me, but she finally did. Most of my relatives – who are all elderly, accepted my change very well – much easier and better than most of my cousins closer to my own age! It was quite the paradox. Several cousins ignore me and have “written me off” as a result of my transition. As for friends, I lost every single friend I ever had, even friends going back to high school days. Fortunately one or two of them adjusted and came back into my life again sometime later. But you learn, you heal, you get stronger and you move on, meet new people and then things like that don’t matter so much any more.
-You already from a young age knew you were “different” in the sense of knowing that you want to complete a transgender operation one day. What was it like enrolling in the army at age 18 after matric in 1991 when it was still compulsory ?Tell us about your experience at first enrolling in the army environment?
When I was very young, about 3 I think, I remember being unhappy with my sex. Even then I knew I wanted to be a girl. I also found out from a very young age that people around me did not appreciate a boy acting like a girl, and that such things were not spoken about unless in the manner of a tasteless joke or disparaging remark. School was very difficult for me. While I was in high school at 17 I knew then I wanted to do the whole gender reassignment thing – and back then there was no information on sex change, just sensational articles in the YOU mag and on the back page of the Sunday Times. It was a taboo just to be gay, let alone wanting to change sex! I dreaded going to the army when I left school, I hated being forced to be one of the “men”. I wanted desperately to be female and to express my feminine side and to be myself. I hated having to live a lie all my life. Unfortunately, going to the army led me into a situation where I spent almost another decade living that lie, and digging myself still deeper into it.
I started in January 1992, and back then it was a different country completely, and also a completely different army. As a gay person or a trans person, you have literally no civil rights, and you were fair game. I was marked, because when I filled in a form marked “medical confidential” and answered questions pertaining to my sexuality, I got back to my squad ten minutes later and found out exactly how much good “medical confidential” was.
My secret was out, and for the first time in my life people were looking at me as a persecuted minority in the way that makes people marked as different a persecuted minority. During basics, I was met with hostility by several Corporals who did not appreciate gay people. One heard who I was and sent for me while the troops were all in the mess during meal time. I went over to him and in Afrikaans he asked me if I was “a moffie”. I replied yes, to give him the short answer, and he promptly warned me in front of everyone else there to stay away from him. Pretty much the rest of the boys made me feel about as welcome as he did, though before I left I managed to make a good impression on some of them who even confided in me that “you’re actually not a bad sort”. Things were not all bad however, as quite a few other authority figures didn’t seem to hold with the general attitude that diversity ought to be persecuted or bullied, and were quite decent to me when nobody was looking. I spent the remainder of my stay growing a thicker skin and learning how to use the system to my advantage. I became a very street-smart individual and when all my “friends” were posted to hot and hellish places far from home after basic training, I got posted to a unit in my home town with permission to stay at home.
-You started your transgender transformation at age 26 back in 1999 and was completed in JAN 2006 .Tell us more about the transgender process from where you start to where it’s completed and also why does the transgender process take so long to complete?
Gender reassignment is usually a lengthy process, if you follow the guidelines, jump through all the hoops and over all the obstacles. Mine took longer because I didn’t go through the government programs. Some people I knew had gone through Pretoria Academic and their staff just don’t know how to handle transgender people. They seem to have the idea that they get to control their patient’s lives and the patient must answer to them – that crap doesn’t play on my TV. Service providers work for the patient, not the other way round!
I heard many tearful tales told by friends who had made their way to see him to get admitted to their program, and who were given unrealistic and unfair regulations and restrictions. They had to dress not as ordinary every day women, but as fictional stereotype “mode-poppies” from the 1980’s, or as people 20 years their senior. Any independent behaviour or thought was seen as “masculine” and a “failure” on the part of the patient to conform to “feminine behaviour” and in conflict with the conservative view that women should be “subservient and compliant. Some said they were turned away because of the “cigarette box test” – on how they bent down to pick up a cigarette box dropped on the floor at their interview. Some of them said they felt “experimented on”, and that their operations were not successful. I admit, it was a matter of desperation when I made my way there.
As a then 30 year old who had already got a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a psychologist and had been living as a woman and been on hormones for almost 4 years and who had already had a bilateral orchidectomy on my own steam, I was told I had to forget everything I had already achieved and start over from the beginning with them, not make a single move in any aspect of my life without first checking with them, AND I would have to fly my mother and myself to Pretoria once a month to consult with him! I was livid and insulted, and told them to go and fly a kite.
It took me a little longer to save up, but with my mother’s assistance I finally could afford my surgery in Johannesburg in 2006, with a doctor of my own choice and having the operation I wanted.
“Gatekeepers” as they are called do serve a purpose in ensuring that people who know what they want get to have gender reassignment surgery – but they cross the line when they try to play “God” with the lives of those who come to them for help. If I had waited for the “gatekeepers” to make up their minds, I would still probably be waiting!
-The army ended up being your career for 17 years (1991-2009)in the end even after your transgender operation completion in JAN 2006 .What was it like living as a trans-women in the army of all places ?
It was a very difficult place to transition, a very conservative, masculine and patriarchal environment, and at the start I fully expected to get fired. I got permission to stop wearing uniform for a number of years. When I first started becoming obvious due to hormones and then make-up and dress, people were confused and curious. Some became hostile. I find the best way to handle that is to tackle it directly. If people are ignorant, inform them. When people I worked with saw I didn’t mind answering their questions – no matter how personal, and once they saw there was nothing threatening about me or my transition, things settled down and it stopped being an issue.
-You already in the past ten years have written over 11 books , 8 of them being Sci-Fi comedy novels using GLBTI characters with the rest of them being books on human rights matters affecting the pink community. Tell our readers more about these books(material it contains) and also the latest one you completed?
Writing is my life – it literally is, because whenever I’m at a PC these days, I’m either working on an article or a document for one group or another. I love writing fiction though, and I’m only sorry I don’t get to spend more time writing stories instead of writing articles for activism of one kind or another. Writing my stories is my love, and writing words to help make life easier for other people, even to help change lives or possibly save them, is my passion. That’s why my advocacy articles always seem to win out I suppose.
The novels I’ve written all follow in a series, spanning more than 30 years in the setting from the first book to the last – and as most writers do, I draw from my life experience to make the situations and characters more realistic and believable. I used mostly transgender, gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters as lead characters, but I don’t always centre the story around the matter of sexuality or gender – usually it is just one facet to the story, or to the character and the focus of the story is on whatever the story is about. I tend to refer to my sense of humor as “warped”, and so the stories are pretty much laced with my brand! Most of the stories are set in space, but usually involve many ‘regular’ scenarios that could have taken place anywhere. Since the latest rage in fiction is vampires, I’ve been looking at a way to build in some vampire characters as well, or a stand-alone vampire series. I’ve been working on one of those for the past 2 years, since I won the Ebook Diva short story contest with a short story about a vampire love tryst.
The advocacy books are a different matter, mostly serious and more driven and direct because I am in point of fact arguing against bigotry and persecution of minority rights. In 2009 I released a number of books at the same time on the topic of human rights advocacy, both tackling religious extremists in politics in South Africa. During the campaigning for the last general elections I was one of several activists that engaged in debate with representatives of several conservative religious political parties who had homophobic and transphobic policies, on their public Facebook groups. The hatred that flowed from the fingertips of these people was like manna from Heaven. Since the debates were very public, these parties lost a great amount of support and in the elections, lost half their seats in Parliament – and the transcripts went into a book form (Bricks & Mortar – Talking Back To The Bigots).
-You are also an activist for Human rights and have been closely involved with two GLBTI rights groups , SA GLAAD and ECGLA. How did you get involved in these groups ? And for those who do not know what are these groups all about?
SA GLAAD was founded by a group of people who were not really activists before the Jon Qwelane issue popped up in 2008. I was one of the founding members, and took the role of media liaison. SA GLAAD is mostly focused on defamation cases, and since the Qwelane issue most of our work has been to refer cases of unfair labour practice or discrimination to relevant human rights lawyers etc. Over time, other members came and went, and I more or less took the leading role of the group. We expanded, founding small groups in different cities across SA. One that has really taken off and is doing very well is SA GLAAD Free State, which held its first Pride last year.
ECGLA was a group I joined here in Port Elizabeth in March 2009. It was more of a support association rather than an advocacy group. I moved up rather quickly, first to Vice President in June of that year, and then to President by the close of 09. Since then I guided the growth of the group to the point where it had funding, office facilities, an NPO registration, ties with local organisations and local government. I resigned from ECGLA at the end of 2011 just after we successfully hosted the very first Pride event in PE, attended by over 5000 people. I was beginning to feel the strain of too many hours doing activism, and not enough time not doing activism.
-We learned that you also from time to time get involved in SA politics?
Yes, although I loathe politics, I saw a need for some transgender representation in local politics, so I stepped up to the challenge. In 2008 I was one of several activists who engaged with the new COPE party and pressured them to include gay and transgender rights in their party constitution and election manifesto, unfortunately they only included gay rights and not transgender issues, arguing somewhat ignorantly that these were one and the same.
After that, I got involved with the local Ward Councillor’s (DA) branch in 2008, becoming Branch chair in 2009-10. In that time I attended meetings, gaining two positions of secretary for two different committees in the PE area, and also attended the DA national congress in Graaf Reinet where I managed to get a picture snapped of me with Helen Zille, as taken by her deputy! In early 2011 I ran for section to be a local municipal by-election candidate for the DA, but was not successful. This confirmed to me that I am far better at being an activist than a politician!
-In 2012 you where the organizer for Pagan Freedom Day (on Heritage day)for the NMB area held in Jeffrey’s Bay. Tell us more about the event itself and what it’s about?
As many probably don’t know, Paganism was wholly misunderstood under the previous government, and misidentified as Satanism, “devil worship” and “witch craft”, all of which were illegal and therefore a criminal offense.
Pagan Freedom Day is celebrated on April 27, which is a public holiday. For people of a Pagan religion, it is a day of bitter-sweet significance. For us it represents a day when we can celebrate our personal freedom to identify ourselves as Pagans, to celebrate our various traditions within the umbrella identity that is Paganism, and to celebrate our religion without fear of persecution, prejudice or hostility from outsiders, or even from the law.
While we celebrate our freedom, we also remember that in many instances, our freedom is still only on paper, as Pagans and Pagan religion and religious freedom itself in South Africa are constantly under threat from those who still hold the ignorant views and misunderstandings of the past. It is a day of hope for the future, but also a solemn day of realization and truth, that in the past we were not free – and with that realization comes the realization that freedom can always be lost.
The event itself is in the form of a fun family day, stalls selling Pagan themed food and arts and crafts, and various odds and ends. We’re planning a few activities, including one or two rituals to mark the significance of PFD. There will also be a charity box for people to drop off old clothes, tinned food etc to be donated to a charity later.
This year there will be another Pagan Freedom Day celebration on April 27, and I am once again the organizer. It will be in Greenbushes, and anyone wanting to attend may send me an email request for details.
-You also participated on the steering committee for the NMB World Aids Day 2012. Tell us more about this?
I was rather surprised at being approached for this project, but yes, I was part of the Steering Committee, and along with another lesbian lady I knew from activism circles, I gave input on transgender issues and matters that were to be addressed at the event itself. The meetings tool place in City Hall, with one of the Metro Mayor’s assistants, and with the direct support of the Mayor. This was rather significant as it was the first time the GLBTI community had been asked for direct input in the planning of an event of this nature.
-You also run a very successful BLOG .Tell our readers more about your blog and the material it mostly contains?
I started the blog in 2008 on the advice of my girlfriend of the time! I never thought it would be such a long-term project, but it’s been going since then. Basically I started out just posting my activist thoughts and moans and groans about human rights in the form of articles. At first these were a daily event, and quite long – so you can imagine I had lots to say in those days! Gradually as my life filled up with other stuff and my emotional resources felt the strain, the articles grew shorter, and the spaces between them grew longer. The articles were redistributed by News24 on LitNet, GaySpeak, sometimes by Pink News (UK), SexGenderBody (Chicago), Mambaonline, and a host of other sites. Actually, I’ve been surprised to see how many places my articles pop up sometimes. The blog as it is now gets posted to as or when something comes up that I feel ought to be posted about.
My main focus has always been religious based hate-mongering and prejudice for LGBTI people – and in the last few years as my own personal beliefs evolved, I began to include the right to religious freedom in my human rights activism as well. Recently my articles focusing on either or both sexual orientation or gender identity and religious freedom issues have also appeared in Penton Pagan Magazine. In the course of my growing involvement with alternate religions and subcultures, my articles have also appeared in places most people wouldn’t see them, and under a nom de plume.
My blog also has a photo album of my transition from 2000 until recently, and samples of my writing, book covers, some photography, some music tracks I made on Ejay, and two advocacy resources giving useful links to information for activists when fighting bigotry – one page for GLBTI and another for religious freedom.
-You have been a Human Rights and GLBTI activist for many years now. As mentioned before have written numerous books and also articles and run a very successful blog. What is your personal view on South African Gay prides, the South African Gay community in general comparing to 20 years back .And also what is your view on our gay rights within the SA government.
I think Prides are an important feature of gay and transgender rights. It’s not just an excuse to party or walk down a public street wearing funny clothes, it’s both a celebration of our identity and a reminder to others that we exist, and that we have the same rights they do – that the rights we have were fought for hard and long, and that we still care enough about them to keep showing up.
20 years ago, the Pink community was a frightened minority, just coming out of the oppressive rule of the National Party and only starting to leave that fear behind. There was a need for activism with all the rejection of our new constitutional rights in the early 90’s by employers and conservative demagogues campaigning against them – and the community rose impressively to answer this call. In the early 2000’s after the fight to gain marriage equality – a fight that still has not yet been won because the law was never changed to accommodate same sex marriage – what we have in SA is a separate law called the “Civil Union Act” that allows gay people to get a civil union and to call it marriage, but NO equal right to insist on being married in a temple, church or religious institution as everyone else does. Even the Department of Home Affairs creates problems for couples by simply telling them they have nobody willing to marry them and sending them to other offices. To me this is very disappointing, because back when this was still an issue, we still had the Joint Working Group, and legal teams to fight these issues in court, funding – and now where are they? Everything has changed. When I became an activist, my biggest challenge was the apathy in the glbt community in SA. People didn’t care. They had their rights in the Constitution, they had the right to marry, so everything was just perfect and all they had left to do was party, party, party. They weren’t interested in the news, or in politics. Most of them were completely clueless about the agendas and election manifestos of conservative political parties that threatened to take away our rights and protections and our freedoms if they had won or gained greater ground in the 2009 general election. When I pointed these things out via my articles, most who saw them were shell-shocked by the reality of the situation. Some called me a hysteric and a scare-monger. A few even reacted by calling me a “racist” because I dared to criticize the ruling party or the particular political party they happened to favour. The community today has improved quite a lot. Today there are more small independent groups around the country, a few of them are groups I am proud to have played some small part in assisting in some way. There is less of the apathy that troubled me so in the past. People are starting to wake up and question things they are told in the media, or to find out things for themselves and to do something to make the world around them a better place. Perhaps that is the central message of my activism: Be the change you want to see in the world. Gandhi said that, and I think he was a very smart man.
-What message would you like to send out to the GLBTI community in general?
When you see someone doing harm to others, especially because they are different to themselves – or to you, stand up for them. Remember that hate + hate doesn’t = love. When you hear someone challenging your human rights or inciting hate against others, stand up and make a noise – because silence gives consent. If someone preaches hate against anyone in the name of love, call them out on their hypocrisy. If someone uses a God – your God or their God, to justify their hate, call them out on their lies, or pat them down to find the special telephone they have been using for consultations. If someone picks up a stone to cast at someone, stand between them. Be a peace maker. Keep up to date with the news, so you know what is being said about you and those like you, and especially by those who hate you. Skip the weather, it’s never right. Read more Terry Pratchett – he’s got it mostly right. Be the change you want to see in the world. And lastly, don’t always take life so seriously, it’s not permanent.
-Finally as a trans–woman in order to help others out there who find themselves at that turning point from doing the transformation from male to female ,what advice do you want to give to them?
Be true to yourself, don’t lose hope. That need to be yourself and to be free is not something that will go away with time. It will never go away, even until you are eighty – and though time will pass, if you choose not to follow your dream, you will still have that need – and you will have a greater guilt and regret for not doing it sooner – and you will mourn the time lost. Don’t cling to sorrow and loss – those who leave you because of what you are don’t matter, and those who matter won’t leave you. We are what we are. Accept that and follow your heart to your destiny and hold on to happiness, not regret.
We thank you Christina for this amazing interview.We salute you for your contributions towards the GLBTI community. Wishing you all the best for the future.
EDITOR AND CHIEF