Blogger, public relations practitioner, stylist and activist, Yaya Mavundla, is a fierce transgender woman who never buckles under the pressures of society, proving that joy begins with self-acceptance.
Compiled by: Blacklight writer
Photo by: Zanele Muholi
Acclaimed trans actor from the hit series Orange Is The New Black, Laverne Cox, once said: “It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.”
Yaya Mavundla is one of the trans-women who are living proudly in a world that refuses to acknowledge their existence.
“We should never wait for the world to be ready for us. We must create the opportunity to be ourselves because at the end of the day it is our happiness that is at stake,” she says.
Yaya was born and raised in Kwazulu Natal (Kranskop). They have also been a publicist for public figures, like acclaimed photographer Zanele Muholi, media personality Lerato Kganyago and designers Quiteria & George.
Yaya is also an advocate for the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer) community, a youth leader at Durban Lesbian & Gay Health Centre, and a board member at Gender DynamiX.
Yaya took Blacklight through her life journey as a transgender woman in South Africa.
I never knew I was a transgender woman until I worked with Zanele Muholi. Before I met her, I identified as a gay man. I didn’t have the education, but being around her I learnt a lot of things about who I was and the moment I discovered myself, I had to embrace it.
I started dressing as a woman but I never came out at home; I just came home as a woman. They just accepted me. I realised that they love and respect me no matter what. Everyone was okay with me, except for my uncles who made silly remarks behind my back, but never brave enough to say them to my face.
I believe that education is vital because people confuse being transgender as being gay and that’s where the problem starts. As a transgender, growing up, there are a lot of signs but people choose to turn a blind eye.
People think that when you are a transgender (woman) you want to be a woman, but they don’t know that you are and always have been a woman.
From an early age, I always played dressed up. I was quite feminine. I used to take rice packages and turn them into skirts, and wear them in full view of my family. Even at school, I would participate in events as a girl and the teachers understood because they saw what was happening.
I was bullied at school because of my sexuality. I grew up with so much anger bottled inside, and I became a violent person because I wanted to defend myself. I learnt to be understanding and accepting of situations. Having strong family support also helped, because if you get validation home then you don’t have to seek it elsewhere.
People say kids don’t understand or don’t know about sexuality or gender dynamics but the mere fact that they are mocking you means they are aware of something. In fact, it’s the kids that make you realise that you are gay, lesbian or transgender because they will give you all these names and force you to do introspection. Kids can make you brave enough to face who you really are.
As a young adult, I would always dress up as a woman for my cabaret performances, but never on a full-time basis. The first time I dressed up to go out was when I had a meeting with Zanele, in February 2014, at the Stevenson Gallery, in Johannesburg. I went out and when I came back I was so surprised because it felt so normal.
I didn’t get any negative response and that’s when I realised that when you embrace who you are, people can sometimes be accepting. Obviously, there will be that one person who doesn’t understand, whether they are highly educated or a successful professional. But what’s important is always your happiness.
I have not done any procedure, yet. Last year, I wanted to start with the transition process but there was a delay, and I hate people wasting my time. There are organisations that help us but I don’t want to be anyone’s product.
I don’t want to be used as a token by any programme that just wants to recruit more black transgender people to enhance their image, I would rather save up and do it on my own.
I also know of people who are put on the waiting list, and sometimes it can take up to four years for them to do the procedure. I don’t want to put myself through that.
Being a trans-woman has its ups and downs. There are days when I look in the mirror and I am not convinced. That’s when you need to learn to be open-minded about appearance and love yourself for who you are – in whatever shape or form.
Also, most of us don’t have people we can go to when we feel confused and don’t like who we are, because sometimes people just can’t relate. I, personally, have to find a way to get myself out of that place.
Transitioning can be quite a lonely journey, especially without support. Support is important, otherwise, you feel isolated.
In South Africa, it’s dangerous to be trans because we get attacked. I was once attacked by guys who wanted to take me home by force. These two guys approached me and asked me to come home with them. When I declined one of them grabbed me forcefully. Luckily, I broke free and ran to the nearest garage.
When I got to the garage I asked them to call the police and a lady (who is a radio DJ) said, “ningamsizi, because that’s what they want. I realised that she said that because of the perception that people have about the LGBTQ+ community, that we are sexually promiscuous.
It’s saddening because that’s why many LGBTIQ+ people don’t ask for help when they are attacked or raped; they are scared of being judged and shamed.
People need to be educated about the difference between a transgender and a drag queen. People think that it’s all about appearance but it’s about gender. The media also shares false information that confuses people.
It’s great to have transgender characters on TV, but the writers must do proper research. You can’t rely on Google. You must meet the transgender community and hear their stories to avoid sharing false information and stereotyping.
Education needs to start at school and in our families. Parents and families with LGBTQ+ family members need education about the LGBTQ+ community so they can understand the people they are living with. They need to understand their children so they can be able to also educate those they interact with.
Those parents (who take time to understand their children) can take that information to the community and at work, especially those who are nurses, teachers or in the police services. These are small but essential steps in making sure that people understand the LGBTQ community.
Sometimes, I look at my social media and the beautiful messages I receive from people make me proud. I realise there are so many beautiful people who want to be themselves, but they are scared. Many of them are waiting for the opportunity, but I always say, ‘Create the opportunity”.
Don’t be scared to take the step and be yourself, otherwise, you will always be invisible. Be brave and take a chance on yourself. The moment you embrace who you are, people respect you more, and you will discover even greater opportunities for yourself.
I would love for trans people to respect themselves. I treat myself with respect, all the time because I don’t want to contribute to the perceptions that people already have about us. It is also up to us to show people that we deserve respect by how we conduct ourselves in public spaces.