Since she was a child growing up in rural South Africa, Melody Seherrie has faced discrimination and bullying due to her gender identity and expression. In South Africa, the LGBT+ community regularly faces violence, stigmatisation and ostracisation – particularly in rural areas.
Now aged 30, Melody has turned her negative experiences into a positive force for good by becoming an LGBT+ activist – standing up for LGBT+ rights and, through her work with Gender Dynamix , making sure that existing laws and policies don’t further victimise or discriminate against trans and gender diverse communities and prevent them from accessing healthcare services. This work is all the more vital in South Africa, which has the biggest HIV epidemic in the world, with 7.7 million people living with HIV .
In Melody's own words:
Growing up in a very small town in the Northern Cape in South Africa was difficult. I always knew that something wasn’t quite right – that I didn’t belong in the body I was born in.
In my early school years, I felt that I was supposed to be a woman – I was supposed to have breasts and a vagina. I was bullied a lot in primary and high school by both males and females for the fact that I was different, that I was not as strong or muscular as a man “should” be. At home, it was just as difficult. My dad was very judgmental and discriminatory against me. I was kicked out of the house a few times.
By the age of 16, I met two of my friends who I still have today. They were openly gay and they were expressing themselves freely. We started this pact of living our true lives, our true identities. That’s when the whole transformation came about and I came out.
I opened up to my mother about it and she said she had already known since I was two years old. Then I spoke to my dad about it and he didn’t approve, not once. It bothered me for a long time, up until the point that I realised I didn’t need the world’s approval. You just have to be yourself, and those who appreciate that will find their way to you and life will become easier. And eventually it did.
I then entered a modelling competition, Miss Gay Northern Cape, and I won the title in 2013. After the competition, I decided to take another step into being me. I moved to Johannesburg – somewhere where I could be more open, more out there – more visible, seen and respected.
Eventually I moved to Cape Town to continue my studies as a social worker. But there it felt like the hardship cycle had continued, because the same thing that happened at school was happening again. People had no respect for gender identity. As a transgender person, being your true self was limited. My friends and I were physically assaulted a few times at the university.
What I am most proud of, as an activist, is the fact that I have been able to connect members of my community on a provincial level to healthcare providers. My hometown is very religious and conservative. But I have had sit downs between religious leaders and members of the LGBT+ community to find common ground and to see how members of the LGBT+ community can still partake in organised religion. I think those are the greatest strides I have made thus far.
My hope for the future is that we find our space; that we are free to be ourselves. On a national level, I hope that there will be policies and laws for the LGBT+ community, that the criminalisation of LGBT+ people should come to an end. I just want peace for our community. We’ve been tormented all our lives; I think we deserve some peace now.
Ret Sovann Punleu, 29, has been a gay man since he was 12 years old. Today, he is an outreach worker for a non-governmental organisation called Men’s Health Cambodia, which works on HIV prevention programmes for gay men and other men who have sex with men, and transgender women across the country.
Cambodia has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Asia. Across the country, 73,000 people are living with HIV – a problem that is exacerbated by high levels of discrimination and stigmatisation towards the LGBT+ community.
As Ret explains, stigma, discrimination and criminalisation of the LGBT+ community can result in high-risk behaviour that can lead to a greater risk of contracting HIV, because people are afraid to be open about their identity, hiding it from family, friends and their community. This fear can prevent them accessing services such as getting tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, – or to access HIV protection, including condoms.
In Ret's own words:
I have been gay since I was 12 years old. In Cambodia, LGBT+ people face many issues. The first one is stigmatisation by their friends and family and society as a whole. This can create problems with people not getting tested for HIV or not receiving treatment if they are HIV positive.
My friends often tell me not to think too much about gender identity. We just have to enjoy what we want to do and what we want to have. The thing that makes me proud to be a member of our community is that I have my network and the organisation that I work for always supports me. Also, my friends and family don’t stigmatise me for being gay.
After being thrown into prison in the 1980s, where she was beaten and humiliated, Marcela Romero became an activist and a human rights defender – standing up for the rights of trans people in her native Argentina. In her country, around 90 per cent of people in the trans population live below the poverty line. Across Latin America, HIV prevalence among the trans community is high. Along with other health and social issues this contributes to the life expectancy of a trans woman being only 35 years old, which is half that of other Latin Americans.
Now aged 57, Marcela has been regional coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean network of transgender people (RedLacTrans) since 2006. She succeeded in being legally recognised as a woman in 2009, after a decade long battle with Argentina’s courts.
Here, Marcela explains how she is fighting for inclusion, education, work, healthcare and housing for the trans population across Argentina and beyond – and for the right for trans people to be able to choose their own path in life without fear and discrimination. She is demanding comprehensive laws that will protect the rights of the trans community in Argentina and ensure equality – from childhood through to adulthood.
In Marcela's own words:
I come from a generation in the 1980s when repression and exclusion were very common in my country, Argentina. The military dictatorship was very strong – so almost all trans women of my generation were detained and imprisoned, including myself. In prison, we were mistreated, beaten, humiliated.
I always asked myself, “why am I being taken to jail? What did I do to be taken to jail?” The truth is that I never knew why I was taken prisoner. I never felt different. But I think our bodies are political. It happens in all the countries where there is dictatorship and repression towards the LGBT+ community.