Transgender doll – a world first?
As she got older, American-born Jazz Jennings said she realised she preferred playing with dolls rather than action figures, wanted to wear her hair long instead of short and enviously wished she could replace her penis with a vagina.
Not sure what to do, Jennings’s parents first took her to a paediatrician then a psychologist, where she was identified as being transgender.
Jennings’s transition has been well documented. She first rose to fame when she was interviewed by US TV presenter Barbara Walters when she was six years old.
Now at age 16, the teen has her own television show on TLC – I Am Jazz (which is not screened in South Africa) – and a tell-all book, titled Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen.
But Jennings is not just spreading her message to adults.
A doll, created by the Tonner Doll Company and fashioned after her, was launched last week at the New York toy fair. This is the first transgender doll to ever make it onto the market.
About 46cm tall with long brown hair, the doll is made from plastic and vinyl.
It has a mound where the genitals should be, just like regular dolls.
“I love her. A portion of my proceeds will be donated to help trans youth who are struggling. I hope that it can place transgender people in a positive light by showing that we are just like other people.
“Of course it is still just a regular girl doll because that’s exactly what I am: a regular girl,” the teen said to BBC News.
Qumbu-born Asive Mvimbi, a transgender youth whom the Daily Dispatch interviewed last year, said the doll showed the world is finally on its way to accepting the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.
Mvimbi, who was born a boy but later transitioned into a girl, was featured over her struggle to get her school principal to allow her to wear a skirt.
She had already come out in her home village at the age of 15 the day she boldly wore a dress.
A matriculant last year, she is currently taking a gap year to work in a clothing store in Johannesburg, while working part time as an LGBT activist.
“The LGBT community still faces a number of issues but things are definitely looking up. People have become so much more accepting of us – and it’s things like this, and positive stories in the media, that make our integration into society so much easier,” Mvimbi said, adding that many of the misconceptions around the transgender community came from a lack of understanding.
“Before my story came out in the newspaper I realised that many people did not understand me or where I was coming from. Some thought I was just confused or that I was being tricked by someone.
“But since my story came out in the newspaper last year, things definitely changed for the better for me. Everyone has been so positive and so accepting.
“There were those old men who were calling for me to be circumcised because they said they will never stop seeing me as a boy but after the article came out they said they understand I’m a girl and that girls do not go to the bush.
“My grandfather, who had not spoken to me since the day I wore a dress, called me and we spoke about my life. It was so wonderful.
“I have never been happier.”
Kerry Anne Oosthuysen, an East London attorney at the Commission for Gender Equality, said the recent controversy surrounding the doll should be seen as a catalyst to spark society into questioning its understanding of gender expression and identity.
She said: “It is well documented that toys mirror the societal norms and prejudices of the communities they entertain.
“Dolls in particular, have been and are still used to emulate racial stigma, gender stereotyping and patriarchy.
“An apt example is the doll labelled the “golliwog” which is based on a book written in 1897, an era saturated by racial intolerance and hatred.
“In the novel, the character “golliwog” is described as the blackest gnome.
“The said doll is largely considered as a tangible display of racism and gross ethnic insensitivity. Similarly, the well-known blonde and petite Barbie doll has undergone immense criticism for enforcing unrealistic body image and being the purveyor of white superiority. Ironically, it was only in 1991 that Barbie dolls were released to reflect African women.
“The recent controversy surrounding the first transgender doll must be seen as a catalyst which sparks society to question its understanding of gender expression and identity.”
Despite the massive strides made by both Jennings and Mvimbi, the greater LGBT community still faces huge challenges.
The United States Transgender Survey – the largest survey examining the experiences of the transgender population in 50 states in the US and conducted on 27715 respondents – revealed disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination towards the community when it comes to things such as finding a job, finding a place to live and accessing medical care.
Respondents also reported a battle in receiving the support of their family and community, with others reporting harassment and violence in alarmingly high rates. The latest survey results were released last year.
“The majority of respondents who were out or perceived as transgender while in school experienced some form of mistreatment, including being verbally harassed (54%), physically attacked (24%) and sexually assaulted (13%) because they were transgender,” the survey reads.
“Further, 17% experienced such severe mistreatment that they left a school as a result.
“In the year prior to completing the survey, 30% of respondents who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression, such as being verbally harassed or physically or sexually assaulted at work.”
This is not likely to improve with US president Donald Trump’s government on Wednesday this week overturning protection for transgender students that required public schools to allow them to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching the gender with which they identify.
Now it is up to the states and school districts to decide whether students should have access to bathrooms that do not reflect their biological sex.
In the Eastern Cape, the situation for transgenders is much the same.
An East London-based advocacy officer from NGO Social, Health and Empowerment (SHE), Phiwe Ngcengi, said transgender women in particular were vulnerable to violence.
According to Ngcengi, a large number of transgender women in East London had experienced corrective rape, placing them in danger of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/Aids.
Ngcengi told the Daily Dispatch last year that cultural beliefs made acceptance of transgenders more difficult in the Eastern Cape.
Because Xhosa men are expected to grow up, get circumcised and find a wife, when they come out as transgender they are often told they have been bewitched and need muti or an exorcist to become “normal” again.
Ngcengi said these actions made it obvious that more education around the transgender community was needed, and the Jennings doll is a good start.
She said there are about 180 members of the transgender community in the province.
“My opinion is that this doll is a good idea. It’s a different way of educating people about the transgender community,” she said.
“This doll will not only help educate people about being transgender but it could also help children to find their gender identity.
“Jazz had to sit her parents down to educate them but this doll could help other children. I think this will also assist parents to accept their child.
“Everyone needs to come with ways of educating people on their respective areas, as long as people will be able to engage.
“Not everyone believes in newspapers. Some believe in art, for example.”
Mvimbi, who is currently on hormone therapy to decrease the amount of testosterone in her body, said her first port of call as an LGBT activist was to ensure that all those starting their physical transformations were able to receive the hormones they need.
“I started out paying for my hormones and they are really expensive. A school-going teenager living in the rural areas in a family which relies on a single income will never be able to afford them.
“These drugs should be provided by the state free of charge. This is a cause I want to start fighting for.
“There are also those in the transgender community, like me, who are ready to start with our full transformation, which includes going the surgical route, but we don’t know how to go about it.
“I’m in the processing of researching which hospitals provide these services, what the processes involved are and how these services can be accessed,” she said.
Oosthuysen said acceptance of the LGBT community in South Africa needed time, legal clout, perseverance and advocacy.
“Moreover, we should look to our own transgender activists to provide a pinnacle of hope and encouragement to the youth of South Africa,” she concluded.
“In parting, while kudos to Jazz Jennings for inspiring the production of the doll, a symbol of a progressive and tolerant society, it is with bated breath that I await a doll to be manufactured to reflect a South African transwoman.” — firstname.lastname@example.org