The word stigma in both the family and society, could be the suitable one to describe Azara Raphael’s bumpy transformation to a woman who is transgender.
SINCE knowing her condition from tender age, Raphael proudly accepted disposition and now wants people to know transgender women exist and are just human beings like everyone else, who can run a normal life and have aspirations like careers and families. “The only thing we can’t do is bear children, but we are who we are,” she says.
From childhood Azara now 34, knew she was a woman living inside a male body. She credits her parents' un-conditional love and support for her being able to accept how she was made and proudly move on.
“I have always been comfortable with myself and my sexuality because of the support from my family. They never treated me differently from my two younger siblings or cousins,” she has to say when Move! visited her at home in Midrand.
Her parents, a South African mother Juliet Maseko and Jamaican father Michael Raphael, gave her free space to express herself in the way she wanted, be it with dressing or hairstyles.
“They taught me to stand up for what I believed in and to never seek validation. I knew what I wanted and I knew to call out treatment I didn’t like,” she the publication reports her, saying.
Azara the now financial consultant and gender activist was born 34 years ago in Soweto, as Vusumuzi Maseko and spent much of her childhood across the continent because of the nature of her father’s work.
When she was a teen, she says her father told her she needed to work extra hard in school so that she could afford a better life for herself because her disposition. “He told me that not everyone would understand how I look, and that there would be people who will try to overshadow my star because of my sexuality and I should not allow it,” reports Move! Her saying. When she was nine years old, her parents broke up a move that affected her so much as that un-conditional love and protection sent off the rail. She moved in with her mother to a flat in Berea. There, Juliet J began dating the man who would become Azara’s stepfather. The young woman quickly noted how bad people could be. She recalls how he would tell her mother, ‘Your son will be f***ed by other men’ and he didn’t care if I heard him or not. He would belittle me at every opportunity and refer to me as ‘Queen Elizabeth’.”
As Azara's life at home was like living in hell, at school things were not good for her either. She was bullied and stigmatized by other learners and teachers alike. As if that was not enough, she recounted to Move! how other parents used to tell their children not to play with whatsoever alleging she would teach them to be gays. Teachers on the other hand, would mock her in the way she walked, dressed and spoke. Being an outcast severely affected her self-esteem, and she retreated into her cocoon.
Knowing she I was a woman born in a man’s body was agonising for her. She recalls how at one point she tried to cut off her penis. She hated to the extent that at the age of 14 would take baths in the dark only to avoid seeing it.
She recalls how that pain of trying to cope with her disposition took a toll on her to the extent of wanting to get rid of the penis. That drove her into searching for reading materials that would help with information on how to cut it off.
At some point the frustrated Azara took a razor blade to herself and tried to amputate it, a move that endangered her life, as she began bleeding profusely and got her admitted in hospital.
THE TURNING POINT
She got a sigh of relief when she later learnt of a medical procedure to remove testicles at a private hospital, and with the help of an older friend who posed as her mother because she was still a minor, she underwent the two-hour surgery.
She recalls how painful it was once the morphine wore off, but the got the solace in the excitement that at least she has managed to get rid of one of the unwanted organs.
She reportedly celebrated her 18th birthday by going to the home affairs ministry to legally change her name and gender. She narrated that for the gender change, the authorities wanted an affidavit from the police and a letter from her doctor as well as an independent one. To change her name she had to fill in a form citing the reasons and the new name.
THE NEW BEGINNING
In 2010 she underwent a R250 000 full sex change operation at a clinic in Thailand paid for by a financial institution.
The operation was a success, she recounts; “After months of recovering and rehabilitation I was in love with my new look. I had become the woman I always wanted to be.”
Azara, who is single, would like to settle down and start a family, and because she can not have her own biological own children, she is contemplating of adopting two children.
Being a transgender woman can be dangerous, says Azara, who was raped in 2015 after her drink was spiked in a club, she says people may take advantage of the condition.
As a board member of Access Chapter Two, a non-profit organisation that advocates for the rights of the LGBTI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex), she always tell trans women “not to be apologetic about their sexuality, saying they don’t owe anyone an explanation.
“We live in a dangerous society and people will take advantage of you,” she warns. “Do not to seek validation or approval from anyone – you are perfect as you are,” she would say.