‘I have never felt a love more real’

Sharntelle, born as a boy, lives her best life as an transgender woman.

It was only when Sharntelle Ontong, 37, had a body reflecting what was in her mind that she could own her identity and not care what anyone had to say about her.

Her story is one of a transgender-woman who took a journey about 14 years ago to Pretoria to have a sex change.

After years of not fitting in, tolerating staring from people and comments such as “kyk die moffie”, Sharntelle lived her life knowing that she reflected a boy’s body, with a penis but was thinking and feeling like a girl.

At age nine, she played with dolls, which she hid away before her mother, Elizabeth Ontong, who was a prison warden, came home from work.

Her mother would also get phone calls from teachers, saying that Sharntelle must cut her nails and hair.

During an interview at her mother’s house, in Strandfontein, on Thursday February 2, on her birthday, Sharntelle recalled a teacher cutting her nails in front of her classmates.

Ms Ontong said she was partly in denial but also Sharntelle kept things from her and her four siblings.

Sharntelle is the middle child, with an older sister and brother; and younger brother and sister, respectively.

Ms Ontong divorced her husband when the children were still young and Sharntelle said she would not recognise her father if he stood next to her in the street.

“When we went to the shops I would go my way and she would go hers,” said Ms Ontong.

“I couldn’t handle the way people looked at her and the things they said.”

Sharntelle lived a double life, one with her family – as a boy, who was named as such, dressed as such, and was a very depressed teenager.

But on the other hand, she tried as many friends groups as possible, to fit in – transgender and gay.

“Everything I did would be done in secret. I would go out dressed as a boy, change in the car and return as a boy,” she said.

Determined not to fit the stereotype of a “moffie” and make something of her life, Sharntelle matriculated from Grassdale High School, in Grassy Park, completed a secretarial diploma at Fairhills Academy and is currently completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree, by correspondence through the University of South Africa (UNISA).

She now works as an accountant for the Western Cape Government’s Department of Health and enjoys entertaining crowds with her vocal talent during her spare time.

At the age of 22, she attended workshops held by the Triangle Project, a non-profit organisation offering professional services to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) individuals, their partners and families.

She did internet research and followed up on it, which included going for a sex change operation.

Born as a boy at Heideveld Day Hospital, Ms Ontong raised a son but in 2003 this changed.

Sharntelle “ran” from home to Pretoria Academic Hospital, where as part of a trial, she underwent a sex reassignment surgery from male to female.

The surgery involves the reshaping of the male genitals into the form and function of female genitalia.

On her return home, it appeared the operation did not yield the desired results. But the cat was out of the bag, and this was a trying time for her mother particularly who turned to the church, where she was counselled and able to make peace with her daughter’s transformation.

About four years ago, Sharntelle was diagnosed with the first stages of pancreatic cancer. She received chemotherapy at Groote Schuur Hospital, which is where she was helped to complete her sex change.

The hospital’s oncology, endocrine, plastic and psychiatry departments all helped with her transformation.

“The physical pain was unbearable,” she said. “But it was all worth it, because of all the emotional hurt I had survived up until this point,” she said.

Four years, prior to the operation, she adopted a four-month old boy, and was in a relationship with a man.

For the last three years, she has been with André van der Ventel, 33, and they have created a home for her eight-year-old son in Muizenberg.

Despite all the trauma, Sharntelle has been through with her family, breaking out of the darkness of secrecy and into the light of honesty, “they are very accepting of me now,” she said.

“They thought it was just a façade, it was a role I was playing for attention,” she said. “Now I am accepted. To the new members of the family who are my nieces and nephews, I am Aunty Sharntelle.

“My son knows I am his mommy and with him at my side it feels more normal and as it should be,” she said.

As Valentine’s Day, Tuesday February 14, approaches Sharntelle said she has never felt love more real.

“I don’t think you really understand until you have it, when you make that person a priority and you are their number one. I never knew love before,” said Sharntelle. “André has shown me what love is, what love is supposed to be, how I’m supposed to feel and I’m learning every day,” she said.

During a telephonic conversation, André said their relationship started as friends. “Eventually we started falling for each other.”

This year André wants to spoil Sharntelle with a dinner for two.

He said Sharntelle has always been open and honest about who she is.

While André has not yet popped the question, the couple intends getting married on a luxury cruise liner in January next year. “We were lucky to meet each other. It is kind of like we were sent into each other’s directions.

“We were both going through a pretty tough time. It was like we needed that kind of partner and we were so tired of being disappointed. We believe it is destiny for us to balance each other out,” he said.

On the topic of love and commitment, André said: “When you are with someone and you really love that person, despite your differences, that is a very strong component when it comes to love. Not to mention chemistry – when you say you want to spend the rest of your life with that person.

“It goes a long way to saying I want to spend the rest of my life with her – that I can say confidently,” said André.

He, however, maintained that couples should celebrate their love every day, that the small things you do for each other should count and that Valentine’s Day was just a reminder.

Dr Kevin Adams, senior specialist, plastic, reconstructive and maxillofacial surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital and lecturer for the University of Cape Town, explained that no one chooses to be transgender.

Transgender relates to a person, whose sense of personal identity and gender (how you perceive your sex- male or female) does not correspond with your birth sex.

“I ask all of my patients, ‘how long have you felt like you are in the wrong body. All of them have replied: their whole life,” he said.

Dr Adams said the Transgender Clinic at Groote Schuur Hospital is the only centre of its kind in Africa, which includes endocrinologists, plastic surgeons, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, social workers and gender activists.

There is, however a 25-year wait for patients to undergo surgery, including breast and pelvic procedures. Dr Adams can only operate four days a year. “The demand for this kind of operation is much higher than we are able to service. If we were able to get an extra four days the waiting list would drop from 25 years to 12 years,” he said.