Born into a woman’s body, Landa Mabenge knew that nature had played a cruel trick on him. The first transgender man to win the battle for medical insurance to cover his gender realignment surgery, he has now, in another first, released his extraordinary memoir of the fight to realise his true self.
Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph
by Landa Mabenge
I arrive at reception at the transgender clinic and am greeted with great enthusiasm by the lone receptionist at the front desk. A few moments later, I am ushered by a smiling Ron into a sunny room, facing the mountainside with streams of cars whizzing by on the busy M5 highway. After the formalities, I am briefed on what the journey of aligning my body to my true gender identity will entail.
I will have to go through a number of assessments to meet the diagnostic requirements set out in the Harry Benjamin International Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorder.
At first, I am deeply concerned at being branded with having a “disorder”, but am reassured that this is only the vetting method, which can give me the green light to begin the long-awaited process.
For the assessment, I appear before a panel of clinicians, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, endocrinologist, plastic surgeon and Ron, the sexologist. I am informed of the next steps, which will comprise three different sessions, the first with the psychiatrist, a few hours later with the psychologist and thereafter a brief physical exam by the plastic surgeon.
I am led out of the room by Dr Don Wilson, the psychiatrist, and can hardly contain my excitement at the opportunity to delve into my childhood with him.
In his office, I am offered a glass of water and a comfortable sofa. After a series of questions and reflections, Dr Wilson advises that I will be attended to by Dr Adele Marais later that afternoon. I treat myself to lunch in the hospital cafeteria while familiarising myself with what I hope will become my second home.
When I walk into Adele’s office later that day, she greets me with a warm smile. I am immediately drawn to her passion as she explains why the standards speak to a disorder and how hormone replacement therapy will impact my life if I opt to proceed with the biological alignment.
We delve into a conversation similar to the one I have had with Dr Wilson. I am happy to share moments from my early childhood and the liberties my grandparents and Ma have afforded me.
After my session with Adele, I meet with the plastic surgeon Dr Kevin Adams, who leads me into a small examination room for an upper body physical. He waits patiently as I remove my binding bandages and sports vest, and asks me to sit on the examination table.
When he is done probing my chest – he must have noticed how visibly uncomfortable I was – he offers his thoughts.
“Well, we can totally work with them. Your breasts are rather large, but don’t worry, we can definitely give you a great chest.”
“Geez, Doc – thanks a lot, hey!”
I have become accustomed to making light of conversations that involve my breasts. I hate them with a passion; I loathe the parts of my body that do not make sense to me. They compromise my identity, prevent me from being my true self. Conversations around breasts and menses remind me of my otherness. A few years ago, on a particularly depressing morning, I even considered cutting them off with a giant bread knife.
I had not yet done any research on why people are born in bodies not aligned to their gender identity, so thought it would be easier if I just took the matter into my own hands. My breasts stood in the way of me passing as a man. I truly felt that, with them gone, I would be able to embrace the displaced man in me.
With my history of mental illness, I knew too, though, that if I decided to act on my thoughts and take such drastic – and foolish – measures, I would surely face time in the loony bin, or jail, or both.
What I knew for certain, though, was that I was tired of not feeling able to get out of bed at times, of waking from traumatic dreams drenched in sweat and not wanting to associate with other people because it was easier to exist in a world where I was isolated.
My breasts felt like the source of my shame and self-hatred. As I walked in from work that day, I slumped on to my futon-turned-couch and flipped through the TV channels, hoping to find something to distract me from the desperate thoughts plaguing me.
Church-goers had told me time and again that it was not possible for God to make a mistake, that if He had wanted me in a male body then that is how I would have been born.
They neglected to acknowledge the other beautiful variations of gender, which included intersex as well as all the other non-binaries. My efforts at trying to convince them to think beyond their blinkered perceptions left me extremely drained and even more depressed.
That morning a few years ago, I had decided I needed to do something. I walked to the kitchen and took a large bread knife from the utensil drawer. Out on my
tiny balcony, I pulled out a smoke from my pack of Dunhill Lights, to which I had upgraded since I had started working, and began puffing, carefully considering the implications of slashing the unwanted breasts from my chest.
I came to the conclusion that, since no doctor would perform any procedure without it being a medical emergency, and since I could not afford any out-of-pocket procedures, I could take the risk, stomach the pain and hopefully incur so much damage that the doctors would have to perform an emergency mastectomy. But I was plagued by the thought: what if they could salvage these beasts? They would almost certainly commit me to a mental institution from which I would probably never be discharged
I finished my smoke and went back to sit on the sofa. I removed my chest concealers and noticed how my breasts sagged so uncomfortably on my chest.
I stared at them for a while, the longest I had ever been able to look at my breasts in my entire life, and psyched myself up to prepare for the pain. With the gigantic knife in my right hand, I zoomed in on my left breast and, after much pondering, lifted it up and placed the edge of the razor beneath its fold.
I took a deep breath and began moving my right hand in an up-and-down motion. After a few attempts, I realised that I did not want to die, and if I lost too much blood – a distinct possibility – I would die here all alone. It truly was not worth the risk.
I descended into a hollow of self-pity. Slowly, I lifted my behind off the couch and placed the knife back in the drawer.
Now here I am, three years later, taking a much healthier approach. I gather courage and enquire about the associated costs and what contraptions I can purchase to give the illusion of a flatter chest.
I am given a pretty straightforward answer by Kevin.
“Well, it depends on how much you earn. As a clinic, we can only perform four such surgeries per year and if you earn above a certain amount, the hospital will charge you according to your earning capacity. It would be best to check with the finance department for an accurate quote.”
When it comes to breast flattening, Kevin cautions me against a chest-binding vest due to the discomfort, but adds that a lot of trans men buy it from an international company called Underworks, which allows them “to ‘pass’ better with less dysphoria in public”.
I decide to buy the vest. The bandages and sports bras are no longer working for me.
A few days later, I am given the green light by the clinic to begin hormone replacement therapy. My assessment feedback notes that I am “undoubtedly” a man who has had to find strategies to cope with living in a body not aligned to my core gender identity.