Trans in die tronk

Andrew Donaldson writes on the cases of Jade September and Karen White


LAST month, the Equality Court ruled that a transgender inmate, Jade September, be permitted to express her identity as a woman while incarcerated in the all-male Malmesbury Medium Correctional Centre; accordingly, she may wear her hair long and in a feminine style, use cosmetics, dress in female clothing and be referred to by prison officials using female pronouns. 

The ruling is seen as a victory. According to attorney Sanja Bornman, it set a precedent that “from now on, all prisons in South Africa must respect, protect, and promote the rights of transgender inmates”.

Bornman (an interesting surname under the circumstances) was quoted as saying: “They cannot deny any trans person the right to express their gender identity, and they cannot force trans and gender non-binary inmates to behave or present in a way that conflicts with their identity.

“The judgment makes it clear that a person’s gender identity is part of their rights to equality, human dignity, and freedom of expression. If you deny a person the right to express their gender identity, you are violating those rights.” 

September, she added, was “overjoyed” at the ruling. “She is especially happy that this judgment is not only a win for her, but for many others like her stuck in a binary prison system, and trans people generally in South Africa whose existence and rights are ignored.”

Life behind bars had, by all accounts, been rough for September. She was first imprisoned at Pollsmoor before being transferred to Helderstroom Correctional Centre, where she was allowed to wear braids and was addressed as a woman. However, she was then temporarily transferred to Brandvlei Correctional Centre where her make-up and ladies’ underwear were confiscated.

Returning to Helderstroom, she had a bit of a row with the the head warden. According to September, she’d told him that she intended to transition, but he had insisted that he wasn’t prepared to have her “looking like a woman” because she’s clearly a man. (It’s probably fair to suggest that these sort of situations were not discussed in the prison warden training manuals back in the day, etc.)

Nevertheless, September stated that, following this altercation, she was placed in solitary confinement for 17 days, forced to cut her hair and made to sign a warning note to the effect that if she committed any further “infractions”, such as wearing make-up, her status as a model prisoner would be revoked.

Lawyers representing the correctional services minister of correctional services and the head wardens of the Helderstroom and Malmesbury prisons argued in court that, according to her ID, September is a male; that she was prosecuted and incarcerated as a male and that until she underwent gender reassignment surgery she must be treated and regarded as a male inmate.

They claimed that the warden at Helderstroom was entitled to discipline September as she had been belligerent and had used abusive language towards him, and that this did not constitute discrimination or harassment. They’d also argued that September had been kept apart from other inmates for her own safety; it is unsafe for her to “express feminine characteristics”, as one report put it, in a prison filled with dangerous male criminals.

Mindful of readers’ general distaste for those in whom the urge to punish is strong, it is nevertheless instructive that we recall the circumstances that got September sent down by the Cape Town Regional Court for 15 years after pleading guilty to murder and theft charges.

Back then, in March, 2012, she was still Jerome Benjamin, a 29-year-old cross-dresser from Delft who met Graham Flax, 65, of Sea Point, on a gay dating website. Shortly after that, Flax picked Benjamin up at his home and brought him back to his Beach Road flat. 

Some 14 months later, Benjamin, impeccably turned out in high heels and make-up, told the court that, after having sex, Flax had fallen asleep and that he had tried to do the same. 

“But,” he said, “I couldn’t fall asleep because I was under the influence of drugs. I went to the kitchen and took a bottle of whisky. I went to the bedroom and hit the deceased over the head with the bottle.”

A struggle ensued. Benjamin said that he “saw a knife” which he used to stab Flax. “I tried to tie him up but he was struggling too much. He tried to run away and shout for help. I then stabbed him numerous times in his neck and chest. I can’t remember how many times I stabbed him.”

As is so often the case these days, newspaper reports on trial proceedings throw up more questions than answers. This was no exception. Was the knife in the bedroom? If so, why? Had Benjamin fetched it from the kitchen earlier? Or had the struggle progressed from the bedroom to the kitchen? How was Benjamin going to tie up Flax? With his pantyhose? 

No matter. Date duly dead and his body covered with a duvet, Benjamin got dressed and made off with Flax’s laptop and his cellphone, which he sold on the streets in the city centre to buy more drugs. He had, he told the court, been addicted to cocaine, tik and kat for 14 years at that stage. 

Benjamin had also attempted to steal Flax’s Corsa bakkie. A security guard however had noticed him struggling to reverse the vehicle, so Benjamin handed the keys to the guard and left. Back home, he spoke to his adopted sister about the killing and she convinced him to turn himself in.

Sentencing Benjamin, magistrate Wilma van der Merwe said the cruelty of the murder was unacceptable. “Only animals act like that towards each other,” she said.

This is overly dramatic and unfortunately populist in sentiment. One wonders how wildlife may be further slandered had a “highly manipulative” transitioning criminal like Karen White appeared before Van der Merwe.

White, 52, currently banged up for life in a men’s prison in Leeds, is a convicted paedophile and serial rapist with a taste for grievous bodily harm. At the time of her last arrest, in 2017, she was a transgender but, despite dressing as a woman, the 52-year-old had not undergone any surgery and was then still legally a male.

White was born Stephen Terence Wood, but changed his name to David Thompson  in 2001 while serving an 18-month sentence for indecent assault and gross indecency with a child of primary school age. It is possible he feared that performing under his birth name may have hampered his career as a drag artist. [1]

In September 2017, and while on remand and facing multiple rape charges, she was placed in a women’s prison in West Yorkshire, where she began her gender realignment process, wearing a wig, make-up and false breasts. During her three months there, she had also sexually assaulted two other inmates. 

One of these incidents took place in a queue for prisoners to receive medication. A prosecuting barrister later told the Leeds Crown Court: “The complainant, while waiting, felt something hard press against the small of her back. She turned around to see the defendant… She could see the defendant’s penis erect and sticking out of the top of her pants, covered by her tights.”

This could not have been an attractive sight. Judging by a 2018 prison custody photograph, the bearded White is a burly individual who has, at least by the prevailing standards of the patriarchy, some way to go before pulchritudinous muster is achieved. [2]

One social worker who dealt with White later helpfully reported, “I did get the impression that she needed to go on an anger management course.” It was further noted that White was well aware of her rights as a transitioning person and “was very much going to plough here own furrow regardless of the [trans] community advice”:

“[White],” it was said, “insisted people referred to her in her acquired gender without trying terribly hard to present as a woman. She would report people for a hate crime if they stumbled over which name to use for her — it was not a way to get yourself absorbed into the community. She was a person who would not compromise.”

It must be borne in mind that both September and White are hardly representative of the “community”. That said, the “community” is causing some consternation elsewhere, away from the confines of prison, as it makes its way into broader society.

One noteworthy area of conflict is at the Old Vic in London’s West End. After decades of complaints from women about queuing for the lavatories there, the theatre recently proudly announced that it had increased its facilities so that women could, as the actress Joanna Lumley put it, have time “for a waz” and throw back a glass or two of lady petrol before the second half of the play.

Management had indeed doubled the number of toilets. But had made them all gender-neutral. Which effectively reduced the number of women’s toilets to zero. 

The feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Chatto & Windus), has slammed the new arrangements: “Once again, women have about half the provision of men, when they actually need double the provision . . . It would have been so easy to get this right. It’s excellent to have gender-neutral provision for all sorts of reasons. But if you’re going to go gender-neutral, go fully gender-neutral rather than gender-neutral plus men.”

Some urologists have however suggested that more urinals are what’s needed. Elderly men have prostrate problems, they point out. They dribble on the seat. The thought of men having to first hitch up their skirts to do so must make the modern theatre experience that much more unpalatable for women.



[1] Mary Cheney, the openly lesbian and actively Republican daughter of former US vice president Dick Cheney, has outraged the “drag and drag-allied community” (it says here) by comparing drag to blackface. After seeing a trailer for the forthcoming season of the TV series, RuPaul’s Drag Race, she wrote on her Facebook page: “Why is it socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — for men to put on dresses, make up and high heels and act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc) — but it is not socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans? Shouldn’t both be OK or neither? Why does society treat these activities differently?”

[2] This matter of “transitional” bulk has stirred up controversy in women’s sport. In October last year, Canadian Rachel McKinnon became the first transgender woman to win a world title at the Masters Track Cycling World Championships in the sprint category for 35- to 44-year-old women. Photographs in the media of McKinnon on the winner’s podium attracted a great deal of comment, not all of it pleasant. Here, for example, is Rod Liddle in the Spectator:

“It wasn’t simply that Rachel was quite obviously a man, but that she hadn’t even the grace to disguise herself very much. Usually when men transition, they put a bit of effort into it — maybe some lippy, a pair of staple-on breasts, etc. It’s not usually very convincing but hell, at least they tried. Not Rach. She just looked like a large bloke in spectacles. If you rummaged around in her shorts, I wonder what you would discover — possibly the usual frank ’n’ beans, so to speak. Rach tells people she identifies as a woman, which allowed her to enter into the race (and of course win it, much to the very great chagrin of the bronze medallist Jennifer Wagner, who suggested it ‘wasn’t fair’).

“Rachel McKinnon also identifies as a ‘doctor’, having completed a PhD in Specious Twattery at some dimbo college in Canada. His — sorry, Rach, I’m not going along with the charade any further — Twitter page also lists several other things he identifies as: ‘Public Intellectual, Trans Woman, Queer Chick, Strident Feminist, Athlete, Vegan.’ Yes, of course, vegan. I think we’d get along terribly well. He was about 29 when he decided to tell people he was a lady and has subsequently decided that he is also a lesbian, which seems to me to be having your cake and eating it…”

Liddle is one of the great gasbags of Britain, a rightwing commentator who habitually insists that those who find his writings racist and misogynistic (and there are many) simply have no sense of humour. He claims to despise London’s metropolitan elite, which is odd as he is clearly one of them. Nevertheless, a great many readers who otherwise despise his opinions do agree with him, albeit reluctantly, in this respect.

McKinnon responded to Wagner’s charge of unfairness by tweeting that the American cyclist had beaten her on several occasions in the past and added: “This is what the double bind for trans women looks like: when we win, it’s because we’re transgender and it’s unfair. When we lose, no one notices (and it’s because we’re just not that good anyway). Even when it’s the same racer. That’s what transphobia looks like.”