School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Staff member’s dissertation explores religio-cultural concepts of transgender identities

Sindisiwe Sithole
Photos: Rogan Ward
Sindisiwe Sithole
Sindisiwe Sithole

Sithole is a transgender man who grew up in the Zion church. His study was inspired by his own experience of coming out as a transgender person in his church. His identity was constantly attributed to the spirit of his late brother, whom the church and some family members believed is living through Sithole, leading him to feel and dress masculine. This motivated Sithole to examine how African initiated churches engage with the issues of sexual diversity and gender; how they regard sexual diversity among their own transgender members; and how transgender individuals understand and negotiate their gender identities in these churches.

Sithole’s study suggests that ‘gender dysphoria is more common amongst trans people that feel obliged to be loyal to the binary understanding of gender between masculine (male) and feminine (female).’ The study notes that transgender people react differently to body-gender identity incongruence and that some do not feel the pressure to re-align their physical bodies to their lived gender identities.

He highlighted that there is no universal position on the status of transgender persons, with some Zion churches displaying transphobic attitudes, while others seem to be understanding and accommodating.

‘Zion churches are ill-equipped to effectively engage and address the identity challenges faced by transgender persons who are members of these churches. They lack vocabulary and theories to engage transgender people. The identity of transgender people is often mistaken for gayness or lesbianism. Often these churches adopt Zulu (derogatory) names such as Inkonkoni/ Isitabane to refer to transgender individuals,’ said Sithole.

His supervisor Professor Charlene Van Der Walt remarked, ‘This Masters research addresses a very crucial and relevant topic in the life of the church and society in the areas of African sexualities. The African-initiated churches’ response to issues relating to sexuality has been addressed with sanctity in as far as research is concerned. The dissertation will make great and significant contribution to the body of knowledge in the field of African-initiated churches and sexuality, especially from an African perspective.’