Transgender Troubles in the South African Workplace

Transgender employees face many challenges in the South African workplace (Shutterstock)

Despite having one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world, many transgender South Africans still choose to conceal their gender identity at work, due to fear of discrimination. We investigate...

In 2015 internet users weren’t able to go a day without coming across Caitlyn Jenner's very public gender transition. The former Olympian came out with a feature on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine and followed up with a documentary of her new life.

“Transgender” was declared one of the top ten “Words of the Year” for 2015 by the Collins English Dictionary. “The growing voice of trans people in the media, such as popular figures Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, saw the use of transgender double and land itself as one of the ten Collins Words of the Year” they announced.

In South Africa, the ANC Women's League allowed transgender women into its ranks for the first time, challenging social norms and stigmas. "What is clear is that transgender people are discriminated against, subjected to violence and excluded from the economy. The League should be home for all women including transgender women" said Khusela Sangoni, ANCWL member.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January of 2016, praised South Africa’s “progressive constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and protects the human rights of lesbian‚ gay‚ bisexual and transgender people.

Ours was the first country in the world to expressly forbid discrimination on the grounds of gender and of sexual orientation, and our Constitution includes a guarantee of equality.

But because "the South African mindset is not as progressive as the South African constitution", as explained by one trans interviewee, many transgender people choose to conceal their gender identity from their families, their friends and their co-workers for fear of discrimination.

What is transgender?

Simply put, a transgender person is an individual whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior differs from the one they were assigned at birth.

According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) “for transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices. Gender identity is not visible to others.”

Some transgender people choose hormone treatment and/or gender reassignment surgery to change their body to match the gender that they identify with, but this is often arduous and difficult. It can be prohibitively expensive for some or put their health at risk and also in South Africa only two hospitals are qualified to perform the gender affirming procedures, and only on two patients a year: the waiting list is over a decade long. For other trans people the need to change their physical body is just not as important as being accepted for who they are.   

It’s not a choice

The decision to transition is not an easy one to make. Many trans individuals only choose to ‘come out’ and to begin the process after they have tried, and failed, to live with the identity bestowed on them at birth. In the US, stats show that 41% of trans men and women have tried to commit suicide. Those who come out are often rejected by their families and friends, leaving them alone to deal with the turmoil of the transition. However, concealing their identity causes immense stress and, at work, has a negative impact on career prospects and progression.

Being transgender is “not a choice. My identity is something over which I have no say and no control,” South African medical doctor, author, activist and a transgender woman, Dr Anastacia Tomson, recently explained in an interview. “I have a female identity, and that is something that can never be changed. I knew that I had to pursue transition if I was going to survive. The idea of continuing to live the way I did before had become unbearable and unsustainable.”

Carol Holly, South African engineer working in the US, told the Mail&Guardian that she understands how her decision might seem selfish or destructive “and the worst of it has been distressing my children, but this is the person I have to be. I like Carol. Carol is funny and engaging. I don't particularly like John; and I was flat-out unhappy as a man.” She adds “The US, despite the fact that the gay rights agenda has made major strides recently, is no more receptive to transgender people than South Africa.”

Carol Holly

Carol Holly                                              

The majority of transgender individuals lead normal lives, preferring to blend into society rather than stand out.

Transition in the workplace

There are situations where blending in is almost impossible, as many transgender professionals will attest, and the workplace can prove a harrowing challenge to those going through the transition.

Trans job seekers who are transitioning often find it difficult to find work if they do not conform to employers expectations. Discrimination usually starts during the interview process, and as such many trans people find themselves unemployed and struggling to secure full-time lucrative careers.

Those with stable jobs usually don’t find it much easier to be accepted when they decide to come out at work and they may face very real challenges if they come out in a hostile environment. Local stats are scarce, but in the US 26% of trans Americans have lost a job due to their identity and 50% have been harassed in the workplace.

In 2010 Christine Ehlers, a transgender woman, was unfairly dismissed from her job as a salesperson at  Bohler Udderholm in Johannesburg. After taking the matter to court she won her case, with Judge Ellem Francis ruling that she be reinstated to her job. The Court noted: “This case shows what discriminated people undergo daily in the workplace. It is a sad indictment to our society that despite our discriminatory past and all the non-discriminatory laws that we have in place, that discrimination in the workplace still thrives. The applicant is one such victim. She excelled in her workplace. She was the best. I do not understand why her changed gender would now affect her performance.”

Juanita's story

Juanita Van Zyl, a Geographical Information Systems Manager in Gauteng, is currently undergoing her transition with the support of her colleagues and managers. She shared her story with us:

When I decided to make the transition, coming out was the scariest thing I’d ever done. But I knew I could no longer hide, this was not going to get better. It only gets better when you accept yourself. In 2015 I had already started treatment, but hadn’t decided how to broach the topic at work yet. Then one member of management noticed my misery and approached me to find out what was going on.”

“I told her what I was going through and together we discussed my transition with the other managers. They were all very supportive. It made me a better employee, being out in the open. My colleagues all put the effort in and have provided me with excellent support. I have suffered no negativity and no discrimination.”

This doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing, and Juanita has had to face some challenges. Her advice to HR and managers is to always feel open to talking to their transgender employees about their needs. There are some situations where a frank conversation is all that is needed to ensure everyone is on the same page and there are no unknowns. She mentions topics which were discussed included which bathroom she would be using and how her colleagues could expect her to dress going forward.

She also noted: “I have noticed that I get a more positive reaction to my journey when I provide a medical reason for my change: in my case, I was born intersex (when the person is born with both male and female physical characteristics). I have found that knowing this gives people an explanation which makes them more accepting of my transition.”

The Home Affairs holdup

Trans men and women also face discrimination when their identification documentation does not match their appearance.

Nadia Swanepoel, a transgender woman, resorted to going on a hunger strike in 2015 to protest her unfair treatment by South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs. The department had withheld her ID application for over three years, after she applied for an alteration of her sex description. Her fight with the Department of Home Affairs is not unique and many South African transgender people struggle to overcome the obstacle of having a conflicting gender assigned to them by the government.

 Nadia Swanepoel

Nadia Swanepoel

The problem at Home Affairs seems to be two-fold. For one there is no consistency, with ID updates taking between 2 months and 2 years. And then despite the legislation in place, the implementation of this is lacking: clerks on the ground are uninformed and untrained, resulting in nitpicking and misunderstandings at all levels.

Sibusiso Kheswa, director of Gender Dynamix, stresses the importance of getting the Department of Home Affairs to “create systems which standardise the requirements and time frames of Act 49 applications. There are many incidents in which trans people are mistreated.” He adds that Home Affairs staff must be sent for sensitivity training, especially in how to speak to trans people.

Juanita struggled to get her ID updated at first. She described her experience at Home Affairs as “an interrogation. The one official didn't understand [about gender change]." Juanita was asked four times about her gender “in a room full of people. I can tell you, when I left there, I just wanted to cry.” But after “harassing” the department daily, she received her updated ID after two months. She has offered to give a talk about transgender people to Home Affairs employees.

Dr Tomson told Careers24 how she decided to quietly leave her stable job in 2015, to make her transition and then return to the workplace. “Despite the legal protections, I chose not to rock the boat. Even if I had fought to keep my position, what would I have been left with? It might have left me in an uncomfortable position with co-workers and patients.”

Her journey has not been as smooth as she had hoped. To date, she has been waiting ten months for her updated ID book. Over 30 job applications have resulted in just one interview. “But I can’t prove I’m not getting interviews because of being transgender. An updated ID book would almost certainly improve my chances of getting called for interviews. But then even if your documents don’t out you and you get an interview, but you don’t look “acceptable” by societal standards, your employer might consider the implications of your appointment on the workplace, clients, colleagues…

Transphobia and workplace discrimination

Those who choose to come out at work often face a long list of discriminatory practices, including:

·         being passed over for promotion

·         animosity from colleagues and supervisors

·         stigmatisation at company events

·         restriction of job duties

·         marginalisation

·         name-calling

·         intimidation

·         blackmail

·         invasion of privacy

·         stigmatisation at company events

·         and even physical violence

Discrimination that is specifically unique to trans employees includes:

Gender stereotyping: ascribing specific attributes, characteristics, or roles to a person, based only on his or her gender

Gendered division of labour: the delegation of different tasks to male and female workers

Deadnaming: referring to the person by their old name, thereby denying their authentic identity

Transphobia: a range of antagonistic attitudes and feelings against transsexual or transgender people

Transmisogyny: discrimination or prejudice against transgender women in particular

Misgendering: when managers and colleagues use the individual’s previous name and gender identity

Juanita advises those who are considering coming out at work that the transgender journey is filled with obstacles, and the workplace is just one of them, “so choose when to tackle it and know that it’ll be worth it. To be in an environment without fear: it is liberating.”

The US agrees with her: 78% of trans Americans admit to feeling more comfortable in the workplace after transitioning (despite mistreatment!).

Consequences of discrimination can be severe and include anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. As a medical practitioner, Dr Tomson confirmed to Careers24 that a number of studies have demonstrated that “social support and economic stability are crucial to ensuring good outcomes for transgender people, and that the respect of colleagues make a difference in a very tangible way. The absence of respect and dignity more often than not leads to substance abuse, self harm, depression and even suicide.”

Anastacia Tomson

Anastacia Tomson       

Creating inclusive workplaces

The main causes of discrimination are a lack of understanding and a lack of education, which in turn can lead to a hesitation on the part of managers and HR practitioners to approach or to assist trans employees, for fear that they will ‘get it wrong’ and open themselves to accusations of discrimination or harassment. But when employers and employees see that their trans colleagues are just like everyone else, the social barriers that contribute to transphobic attitudes will begin to crumble.

Dr Tomson explains that most people try to understand trans experiences by imagining that they themselves desired to be a different gender.

Try to picture what your life would be like if you really felt like you were actually a different gender.

Of course, this exercise never works,” she told Vikar Singh in an interview in 2015. “Because being trans isn’t about who we feel we are, or who we want to be. Being trans is about who we are. It’s that simple. So, [in the case of a woman, I’d tell her] – don’t imagine that you were a man. Imagine that you are still who you are, but everyone treats you like a man.” 

Professor of Intercultural and Diversity Studies of Southern Africa at UNISA, Melissa Steyn, recently said “When it comes to gender we have to acknowledge and respect people for who they say they are. An ethical leader must have a consciousness, conscience and a responsibility towards other people’s identity and rights. We must realise that we can be different together. We have to become more inclusive and work to be different together and this must come from within.”

Dr Tomson agrees. “Striving to embrace our shared humanity, rather than looking for reasons to marginalise people, is the key to eliminating prejudice in all its forms.”

Inclusive workplaces don’t develop out of nowhere – employers must be proactive in building a culture of respect, by responding to all complaints about discrimination, including those relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. Being seen to take action sends a clear signal that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated.

It is amazing how the public tends to believe they have figured it out, that it’s us and them. But in actual fact we are all the same” says Lesego Ramphele, a psychology Master’s student and board member at Gender Dynamix.

Lesego Ramphele

Lesego Ramphele       

Resources and the Law

Employers, managers and HR practitioners who oversee transgender staff members are advised to help all employees to work together to make the assimilation of the transgender employee as smooth as possible.

Local organisations offer comprehensive advice, for both employers and employees, easily available for download. These documents aim to explain and smooth the transition process for all parties involved: 

Gender Dynamix’s “Transition at Work” Guide for employers on how to support transgender employees

Download it here:

Gender Dynamix’s “Transition at Work” Guide for transgender employees

Download it here:

Gala’s Workplace Guide for transgender employees and employers

Download it here:

GLAAD’s Reference Guide: Transgender-Specific Terminology

Read up here:

It is useful if employers and employees also familiarise themselves with these South African laws:

·         Point 9.3 of The South African Constitution (Act No. 108 of 1996) which states that “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

·         Article 15 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights protects the right to work, stating “Every individual shall have the right to work under equitable and satisfactory conditions, and shall receive equal pay for equal work.”

·         The Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act (No. 49 of 2003)

·         The Labour Relations Act (No. 66 of 1995)

·         The Employment Equity Act (No. 55 of 1998)

·         The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (No. 4 of 2000)

Get in touch with the experts

There are several excellent local organisations offering advice and support including, but not limited to the following:

Gender DynamiX aims to advance, promote and defend the rights of trans and gender nonconforming persons in South Africa, Africa and globally. Phone (021) 447 4797 or email

GALA is a centre for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) culture and education in Africa. Phone (011) 717 4239.

Iranti-org is a queer human rights organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa, working within a human rights framework as its foundational platform for raising issues on Gender, Identities and Sexuality. Phone 27-11 339 1476 or email

Triangle Project is a non-profit human rights organisation offering professional services to ensure the full realisation of constitutional and human rights for LGBTI persons, their partners and families. Phone (021) 686 1475 or email

Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA) is an organisation founded in 2010 by African transgender individuals to focus on transgender and intersex issues in previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa. Contact them here.

PACT is an organisation consisting of professionals who have an interest in advocating for the rights and freedoms of their transgender clients or patients, and aims to address inequities and injustices experienced by transgender people in South Africa. Email

With special thanks to Dr Anastacia Tomson (read about her published book here) and Ms Juanita van Zyl

Written by Elizabeth MamacosElizabeth currently serves as Editor at Careers24. She oversees a team of writers who specialise in career advice, and has a long history of both digital and print journalism. Elizabeth spends her free time studying and running after her toddler. If you would like to get in touch, email her at