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An exploration of religio-cultural concepts of transgender identities in Ethiopian Zionist churches in the Midlands, KZN.

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Transgender people experience incongruence between their gender identity and sex assigned at birth. In South Africa, the transgender population has remained an invisible population until the development of organisations such as Gender Dynamix, who are lobbying for the rights and the visibility of transgender and intersex people in Africa. This study aimed to explore the religio-cultural concepts used to negotiate and engage transgender individuals located within the landscape of African Independent churches in the Midlands area, KwaZulu Natal. Part of this study was to explore the experiences of transgender people in the development of their gender identity. How the transgender identity is embodied in the Zion churches and how transgender individuals respond to an embodiment of their identity in these churches. The study focused mainly on the three key central themes that form an important part in the development of the transgender identity, the key themes are Naming, body, and cultural identity. Feminist queer and transgender theorise were utilised in this study and the study used the phenomenological approach as it explored the lived experiences of transgender individuals. Findings highlighted that four of the transgender participants identified between the gender categories of feminine and masculine, which was different from their sex category assigned to them at birth. This challenged the essentialist view of understanding gender in relation to sex. Findings further suggested that the Zion churches lack a vocabulary and theories to engage transgender people. The identity of transgender people is often mistaken for gayness or lesbianism. Often the church adopted Zulu names such as Inkonkoni/ Isitabane to refer to transgender people. Further findings suggested that transgender people suffered from gender dysphoria because their anatomic bodies did not align with their lived gender identity. To align their bodies transgender individuals stuffed their bodies with objects. Transgender participants illustrated that a dominant trend in their community was that there were accepted for who they are and their communities were aware of their identities from an early age. Therefore they did not experience any discrimination and culture was never used as a tool of discrimination against their lived gender identity.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.