Bodies over Borders and Borders over Bodies: the 'Gender Refugee' and the imagined South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis tracks the conceptual journeying of the term 'transgender' from the Global North - where it originated - along with the physical embodied journeying of transgender asylum seekers from countries within Africa to South Africa, and considers the interrelationships between the two. With regards to the term 'transgender', it is the contention of this thesis that it transforms as it travels, taking on meaning in relation to bodies, national homes, institutional frameworks and imaginaries. More specifically, that it has materialised in South Africa - first as a discourse and following this as a politics - due to a combination of social, political and cultural conditions peculiar to the country. In direct correlation to this movement, this thesis argues that in recent years South Africa has seen the emergence of what can be usefully termed 'gender refugees' - people who can make claims to refugee status, fleeing their countries of origin based on the persecution of their gender identity. This study centers on the experiences and narratives of these gender refugees, gathered through a series of life story interviews, highlighting the ways in which their departures, border crossings, arrivals and perceptions of South Africa have been both enabled and constrained by the contested meanings and politics of this emergence of transgender, particularly in relation to the possibilities of the South African Constitution. Through such narratives, this thesis explores the radical constitutional-legal possibilities for transgender in South Africa, the dissonances between the possibilities of constitutional law - in relation to the distinction made between sex and gender - and the pervasive politics/logic of binary 'sex/gender' within South African society. In doing so, this thesis enriches the emergent field of Transgender Studies, and challenges some of the current dominant theoretical and political perceptions of transgender, by offering complex narratives regarding sex, gender, sexuality and notions of home in relation to particular geo-politically situated bodies. This thesis speaks to contemporary international concerns and debates regarding migration and asylum, identity politics, the control of borders, human rights and protections, documentation and the ongoing bureaucratisation of sex/gender.