Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Transgender in Focus: Into the Light – Juanita’s Story

Born intersex, Juanita survived botched surgery that (mis)shaped her life growing up. It was decided shortly after her birth that she should be male. It was the wrong decision. She recently reversed it. This is her story, as told to MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Juanita (36) is a specialist in satellite remote sensing. She decided to transition in December 2011.

I was born a healthy young boy (or so it seemed) in Bloemfontein on 1 July 1979. My first-ever memories of being different are at age three. I was not interested in my toys and always ended up in my mother’s closet, wearing her shoes and clothes. My parents never worried. They thought it was just a phase.

I did start to play with boy toys, but whenever there was a doll or teddy bear, I rather played with that. I had a rather large collection of teddy bears. Always went to bed with all of them. I felt safe and loved between my teddy bears.

My parents are old school ‘Afrikaner’ people. They grew up in the Apartheid days. They were very religious. This was where my faith road started. You did what you were told and never questioned. I managed to talk to God as a young child and share my hopes, dreams and troubles with Him.

I grew up in a very strict family. My dad was in the military but later moved to the prison service. I was drilled from a young age to be a man. I hated that. I suppressed the memories of my dad beating me as a child, but he used to do that often, especially when I showed feminine behaviour. He used a ‘strap’ to beat me. It had a 20cm long wooden handle. Attached to the wood was a 20cm piece of leather about 5mm thick.

My last proper beating was around age eight or nine. All I remember was his hand firmly behind my neck pushing my head into the bed. I remember him screaming that he would stop hitting me once I stopped crying. I don’t remember much else. I know I did stop crying because I passed out from the pain. He got a fright because that day he thought he killed me. He never laid a hand on me again, but that didn’t stop him from screaming me into submission. I was never allowed to cry. I was used to the words “be a man” and “man up”. I was scared of him when I was young. Only when I was older did I rebel.

I remember at age six kneeling next to my bed with tears rolling down my face pleading with God to change me into a little girl. I knew I was different, but I was alone in a world where this type of thing was from the devil. This was the age where I started to hate everything about myself. It is difficult to be so young and filled with so much hate for yourself. This hate turned into thoughts of suicide. I remember praying and wishing I was dead or never born. I was at my happiest when I could play with other girls, but got into trouble because I was a boy and not supposed to play with the girls like a girl. I was a confused and troubled child, and no one seemed to notice or care how I felt.

I was about eight years old when I wanted to cut my wrists. I remember the cold blade on my wrist and the tears and how my room door was broken down. Because my dad was a high ranking officer, everything was kept secret. I started therapy, but never felt comfortable speaking to anyone about my feelings. I never had the courage to say I wasn’t a boy. I had major issues at school. I was teased a lot, even though I did everything a boy had to do, even sports, but the other kids always noticed differences. I got so angry at times; I threw tantrums in class, throwing desks and chairs around. My self-hate was expressed in violent and erratic behaviour.

I started collecting my mother’s clothes. I had various hiding places. Every opportunity I had, I would try to be a girl. I loved role playing games and was always the heroine in my mind. I enjoyed those times when it was just me and my wild imagination.

At high school, puberty started, and further hates and fears developed; the disgust when I got my first erection. I hated it. On many occasions I had a knife or large scissors, wanting to cut it off. I was afraid of pain. I sometimes used rubber bands and tied it tightly around everything, hoping, wishing it would fall off. Eventually, when the pain got so bad I couldn’t walk, I would take it off. Sometimes I pushed everything as hard as possible up my body, wishing it out of sight. No physical pain could compare to the emotional pain I felt.

High school years also had a plus. I was exactly my mother’s size. Because of my upbringing, I always felt guilty about who I was and what I was doing. I was 16 when I planned my next suicide attempt. It failed miserably; I just got a bloody head. After that I searched for God. I decided to give my life to Him and stop my secret life. The first few months were OK. Then I became negative and aggressive. I survived another suicide attempt when I was 18. When I was 19, my dad passed away and I thought his death was my punishment. I ended up with psychologists and on medication. Nothing worked. One day, I just got into my car, bought woman’s clothes and shoes and dressed up again. I ended up at my dad’s grave, crying for the first time since his death. I remember saying, “Hello Daddy. I’m your daughter Juanita. I wish you had the chance to know me. I love you. I miss you. I’m sorry that I’m such a disappointment.”

At this stage I was at university. I became brave and was Juanita often on campus. Having freedom and being me, this was a happy time. Then I started work, and was plagued with guilt again. Once again I tried to stop my secret life. I decided I would study to become a pastor. I thought this would give me answers. I also started strength training, thinking the bigger the muscle, the faster the woman in me would die.

I did my best to ignore the longing. I was once again seeing a therapist and on medication. I never finished Bible school. People’s judgement became too much.

At this stage I was a big man, over 100kg. I could squat four times my body weight. I bench pressed 200kg easily. I was invited to strongman competitions at the gym. I was never happy. I think most men would have one huge ego if they looked the way I looked. One day, walking out of the shower, I saw my body, and with shock and shuddering I screamed at the mirror, “What have I done?” I never touched a weight again.

Because the depression deepened, I opened up to people in the church. At first I was accepted, but then they pushed me to go for ‘bevryding’. This is like exorcism. They believed I was possessed by demons. It was hard to swallow. Hendrik, the man, was aggressive, depressed and wanted to die. Juanita, the woman, was full of joy and love and wanted to live. After three months of nagging, I submitted to them to try to free me of my demons. It was a day I want to forget; people I want to forget. I lived as Hendrik for about four months. I had suicide note number three written by then, but a friend came to my rescue.

She helped me become Juanita again. That day, it felt as if the chains were cut off. I went for my first-ever photo shoot as Juanita. I wanted photos to remember the woman in me. Two ladies actually met Hendrik before the shoot. Afterwards, they took me aside and asked me to promise that I would continue to be Juanita. I think they saw the difference. I was 29 years old. It was the first time that someone, a woman, said I was beautiful.

After that day, I tried to be Juanita as often as possible. I had friends that accepted me, but I turned my back on ‘Hendrik’s’ friends. More and more my friends motivated me to start my transition. Even dressed as a ‘man’ I was Juanita for them. They knew my heart and soul.

I decided to transition in December 2011 because I became so depressed, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would try suicide again. I knew I would not fail like I did as a child. In the end it was a choice between being male and knowing I would kill myself, or being true to myself and wanting to live.

In January 2012 I began transition: laser hair removal and weekly psychologist sessions. After three months I started seeing a psychiatrist. In the very first session he approved full hormone treatment. I was so happy.

But days later my car was written off in an accident. Again I thought I was being punished. The thought of being a man filled me with disgust and suicidal thoughts returned. I was in survival mode, praying and crying. Only a year later did I get back on track.

At the end of July 2013 I saw an endocrinologist for the first time, and she asked some very difficult questions.

She examined me and noticed a scar between my legs. I told her that my parents and GP told me I had had a hernia operation when I was small.

The doctor told me my male genitalia were a lot smaller than normal. She confirmed breast development and that I was already a B-cup. She didn’t find any proof of a hernia operation and scheduled a sonar to verify this. She also told me my scar was unnatural; that she had never seen such a scar.

She referred me to Steve Biko Academic Hospital for further tests. These confirmed that I never had a hernia operation.

Later, while waiting to see the psychiatrist, I opened the endocrinologist’s reference letter. I was shocked to read that I had female genitalia. Following the tests, it appeared I was born with both genitalia. We cannot say for sure. The scar is the only evidence of something done to me when I was little, most likely normalisation surgery. I was born intersex and instead of allowing me to grow up and self-identify, my parents or doctors decided to make me male. My chromosome results are male, but the issue my doctors have is the fact that my hormone levels are more female orientated and the genitals I was left with after the operation are underdeveloped. It remains a grey area in my life without clear answers. 

My questions will probably be answered in the next few months. I have to wait until November to get the final chromosome results. I’m happy that I’ve come this far. But I am very annoyed knowing that my parents and doctors probably caused the struggles I’ve had for 35 years. The wrong decisions were made regarding who I am, causing most of the pain I’ve had to face in my life. Not to mention the hell I had to go through with the church. Juanita will always believe in God, but I will never set foot in a church again.

Normalisation surgeries still happen today. Malta is the only country that outlaws it. I do my best to educate people on intersex issues and hope someday these surgeries won’t take place in South Africa. I hope for more recognition for intersex people. Australia, India and Germany recognise a third gender. If transgender rights lag behind, intersex rights barely exist.

In October 2013 I had my first session with a psychiatrist at Steve Biko. Everything went well. I took the unpopular decision to start HRT by self-medication. I used hormones for five months before my doctors, fearing for my health, approved my treatment. I have now been on Hormone Replacement Therapy for 16 months.

Sadly, my journey at Steve Biko turned into a nightmare when doctors refused to provide me with the reports I needed for my ID change. I’ve now turned my back on Steve Biko. I have a medical team in Pretoria assisting me with my journey forward and finally things are going very well. I will see them again in August 2015. I will undergo medical tests shortly and hopefully be able to start changing my ID by the end of August. The plan is to change my ID this year because medical aid has committed to paying for my medication, but I need to be legally female. Most of my medication is for a female.

I’ve noticed how differently people treat me when I present myself as female. I did not always present myself as female when I went to Steve Biko. Sometimes I presented as gender neutral. As a “male” it was far easier to get help or attention compared to when I presented as female. It feels as if you command more respect as a male.

One time I wore a skirt to hospital and some men made horrible remarks. Because there weren’t enough places to sit while we waited I was invited to sit on a man’s lap. I was extremely disgusted. While being upset, they would tell you to stop being so angry and smile. I felt like a puppet that had to conform to what they wanted before they would leave me alone.

Another time I was lucky and found a place to sit, but was again disgusted when the man next to me ‘jokingly’ kept touching me. I also found the pet names they used irritating. Ask my name. Don’t call me Hartjie, Bokkie or Blommetjie if you do not know me.

It is extremely difficult with men. It is also extremely scary because you don’t want them to figure out you are different. I always did my best to keep my tears or anger inside, out of fear. I was worried they might beat me up. There is nothing more intimidating for me than a traditional Afrikaner man.

My employer has been wonderful, although I was stressed and worried. My bank, Nedbank, has been a shining light – although I’m seen as male by the law, they use my female name and female pronouns. And my new medical team is amazing. I’m being treated by the team at In 42 months on this journey this has been the best treatment I have received. They are extremely welcoming. My psychologist emails me to check in – the first time this has happened.

I still live with my mom. I never opened up to her until I learned I was born intersex and normalisation surgery was done on me. It has become a topic to avoid in our home. I get no support. She denies knowing anything about the surgery that was done on me. She knows I’m intersex and will change my ID to female. We do not discuss this at all.

My transition has been far from perfect. I can only describe it as a living nightmare although it does seem things are finally beginning to work out for me. 

South Africa’s laws are far more progressive than the hearts and attitudes of its people. Whether you are on social media or reading comments on news articles, people show a lot of hatred when trans issues are raised. We need to do a lot more to educate people.

Relationships and friendships are a big challenge. I describe myself as asexual. I am a very loyal and loving friend, but I have one major flaw. Because I’ve been bullied and hurt, I struggle with trust. I’m lucky that I have a few friends that support and love me for who I am. They accept me even though I can be difficult. The difference between them and other people is that they know my heart. They see the woman trapped inside this shell. DM

Photo by Sodanie Chea.


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