At birth, everyone is assigned a gender based on the appearance of their genitalia, and this identity is usually reinforced by family and society. But what if you feel that your assigned gender isn’t the right one? What if you fully or partly identify with another gender? By definition you would be transgender, like 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow Anastacia Tomson.
Tomson who also describers herself as a “storyteller and unapologetic queer,” has turned her focus away from her career as a medical doctor in order to advocate for transgender people and other sexual minorities. One month before coming to the United States as a Fellow, she published her autobiography, “Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa.”
From childhood, Tomson said, she felt like an outsider who did not fit in. She knew she was different. But she did not plan on coming out or transitioning into a woman until she had left home and completed medical school. When she came out, she immediately had to leave her job as a general practitioner because the doctor she had been working with became hostile. She sought psychiatric help, but was frustrated with questions like “Did you play with your sister’s Barbie dolls?”
Finding hormone therapy was also difficult. Tomson faced medical practitioners who acted more as gatekeepers or profiteers than professionals willing to offer safe and effective treatment. She sought treatment because her identity and official documents didn’t match, but found that her physicians weren’t prepared to deal with people who are transitioning. As a doctor herself, she found it hard to understand the lack of understanding and compassion she found in the medical profession.
“One of the root causes of this lack of empathy is you have never really interacted with a trans person on their terms, and seen them as a fellow human being instead of something very other,” Tomson told South African journalist Pippa Hudson.
Her experiences prompted her into activism. She now reaches out to gay and transgender people, offering information sessions on topics such as how transgenders can get documents amended to reflect their identity, and receives weekly questions from transgender people and their families looking for guidance.
But Tomson is also reaching out to the mainstream “cisgender” community — those who fully identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Can sharing information help people overcome prejudice and gain empathy? Tomson’s outreach efforts aim to help everyone see the human being in transgender people and other sexual minorities. She wants them to understand that everyone has the power to make changes to create a more welcoming society that supports the human rights of all.