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Lesedi: Hi, I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe and you’re listening to Radio Workshop.
The internet can be a harsh place. Think… trolls. Those strangers who hide behind their computer screens and go out of their way to blow up a comment thread by being cruel and disruptive.
And sometimes abuse that starts online can turn into real life harassment and cause even more harm. Especially if you live in a small community where there’s no such thing as being anonymous.
That’s why our next story surprised us.
Growing up in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Noks Simelane never really felt safe to speak about his gender dysphoria. But when he did – he did it on YouTube.
This is our second story about allyship – and this time, the unexpected ally was the internet.
Noks: When I was young, I’m 24 now. But, back when I was young, around 7 years old, ‘childhood me’ was trying to tell me something. And it’s not like I put much thought into it or anything. But one day I just decided to pee standing up. As a girl, I was taught to sit, obviously. But that day, I wanted to stand. And so I did.
Noks: I went into the bathroom. Locked the door… And I gave it my best shot!
50% of it ran down my legs. Some of it went into the toilet. And the rest was on the seat. It was embarrassing! It ended up on my pants, my underwear. It was just a total mess.
It’s obvious now that ‘childhood me’ was trying to tell me something. But I guess I was just really too young to connect the dots back then.
Noks: Things only really fell into place for me at 13. For 13-year-old me – YouTube was the beginning of everything!
Sam Collins: I know, I know a lot of people are gonna say, “Oh no, not another person coming out,” but, well, it is.
Noks: As a young teen, YouTube opened up my world. I mean, there was Sam Collins who I watched a lot…
Sam Collins: As you can already tell by the title I’m transgender. Um, I’m FTM transgender, which means female to male, which means that I used to be female. I used to live as a female and I know some people…
Noks: And I watched all the videos by Benton as well.
Benton: So this week I thought that we could take another little trip to the past. I know how there’s like little things that you did as a kid and just like coincidentally line up with something now. It’s like, “Oh, that’s why I do that!” So in particular, I mean, I’m talking about things that I did as a little girl that like coincidentally now makes sense that, you know, I was a boy. But it’s not like if you do those things you automatically are. It just means…
Noks: I mean, picture it: I was just a black kid from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa watching these videos. I didn’t even know being trans was a thing before YouTube. I mean, I’d never spoken to anyone about my feelings before. And something just told me to keep my mouth shut. Like there was something wrong with the feelings I was feeling.
But here were these people on the other side of the planet who felt just like me.
And, they even had a name for those feelings – the name being transgender.
And they acted on those feelings.
And it turned out okay for them. In fact, it turned out so well that I could count on them to be there every week with a new video showing them living as their real selves.
So I started watching more and more videos.
I became obsessed. Then nge I compared my experience theirs constantly.
It took me like four years of watching these videos and thinking hard about myself. By the time I was 17, I felt like I was ready to tell my mom.
I was away from home, and yoh I was nervous, but couldn’t wait any longer. So, I decided to come out to her via text message.
[SOUND OF TYPING AND MESSAGE SENT]
Waiting for her response, eh! It made me sick to my stomach. Being her only child, I was scared of being a huge disappointment. Like going from ‘daughter’ next thing I’m a ‘son.’ I knew it would be way too much for her to handle.
[SOUND OF NEW MESSAGE]
But her response? Eh, ya ne. She offered to look for trans support groups. I mean, that’s amazing! She then told me she’d be with me every step of the way… That I shouldn’t feel alone or feel like a burden. And to me that meant a great deal.
Knowing I had my mother’s permission gave me the confidence to take the next steps to my transition.
Noks: I started my own Youtube channel two days after, because I just could not wait.
Also, remember how I spoke about YouTubers Sam Collins and Benton earlier? They cracked open my world. But they were white… and American. They couldn’t really tell me how to go about transitioning in South Africa. And I wondered how much harder it would be for a boy in a relatively small town in Kwazulu Natal.
At the time, there weren’t many black South African trans YouTubers out there. Information about going on testosterone in South Africa was very hard to come by. And trust me, I Googled hard. There was no one out there making this info easy to access. So it just seemed right for me to step up and be that YouTuber for others as I transitioned.
Noks on YouTube: When I was a kid, like my cousins and our friends used to play house-house. If you do not know what house-house is, it’s where you and your friends play a family where there’s a mom, a dad, a brother, a sister, and a little baby.
Noks: I posted my first video on the 17th of August 2017, and it was my own “How I Knew” story.
Noks on YouTube: I remember that like I always used to play the male figure. Like I’d always wanna be the brother or the dad all the time. I’d use like a stick, put it down my pants and use it for the thangs.
Noks: So, once I started on testosterone, I posted videos about my transition.
Noks on YouTube: The things I’ve noticed is that I have hair on my legs, my thighs, my arms, like right here. And on my face as well, I have like little chin hairs. Another thing is my scent. My body odor. It’s so strong that at times I have to shower twice a day ‘cause it’s that strong and I’m just like, wow! And at times my body is just like, “Mm-mm. Mm-mm my babes. Hambo geza. It’s time. My voice as well. At times it’s high pitched, at times it’s deep. So I, I do not know what’s happening. Um, it’s annoying. It’s very annoying.
Noks: One of my most popular videos was a step by step guide on how to transition in South Africa…
Noks on YouTube: Next step. Okay, next step is you go see a psychologist. A psychologist that is LGBTI friendly and they are educated about these things and they are aware and they know…
Noks: Yoh! Making those videos – I had all kinds of emotions: fear, excitement, sadness… You may wonder why I felt sad. I mean, coming out on YouTube was a big move. Everyone would find out. And I knew they wouldn’t all accept me. I would lose a lot of people..
Jassus, you’d think the worst would come from trolls in the comments section, but the strangers I spoke to on my channel were mostly supportive. It was the people I knew who said the worst things. I’d get DM-ed by friends or family who watched the videos. They’d ask me to explain myself. I even got called a freak at some point…
But, I kept posting. I was on a mission to become the real me. To see the real me in my videos.
Noks on YouTube: Thank you for watching guys. And again, please do subscribe. Please do share guys. Share! Literally just *click* share! Especially on Facebook. All you have to do is click *click* and it’s like, share now. And you’re like, yes babes that is it. But I understand if you have family who is like, what is this? Okay, I understand. Then please share on your WhatsApp cause I’m pretty sure you blocked the family. Please do that.
Noks: My videos are a kind-of mirror for me. I re-watch them from time to time ‘cause I like to see how far I’ve come in my transition. But sometimes I look at myself and I think “I’m not man enough.” And it bothers me. It affects my mental health.
Honestly, the thing that bothers me the most is that I cannot have a family, like naturally. I won’t be able to impregnate the future mother of my kids.
These aren’t thoughts I like to share on my YouTube channel much. I don’t want to seem… ungrateful, I guess? I just don’t want to be seen as someone who isn’t fulfilled.
I mean, I use he/him pronouns. I pass. What have I got to complain about, right?
Noks: But, yeah… Everything about being trans feels so medical sometimes. I mean, I have to keep taking injections of testosterone. And then there’s top surgery and bottom surgery. Some days it sucks… Kotoge I keep turning on that camera, because I know my channel is helping a lot of people out there.
Noks on YouTube: I’m just here to update you guys on how I’ve been feeling and what’s, not what’s been happening but…
Noks: This one time I got this comment that really sticks with me. Let me read it to you.
“I can’t believe I finally found a fellow South African trans man on YouTube. I feel like crying bruh.”
And here’s another one:
“Its amazing hearing someone with my accent talking about the stuff I think about all day, I wish this community would grow more.”
Noks on YouTube: Um, yeah, I love you guys. I’ve never told you guys that but I do.
Noks: I even got a comment from a trans Youtuber in Jamaica saying… “Keep doing what you do I love the realness man.”
It’s feedback like that, yeah it just makes it all worth it.
Noks on YouTube: I really do, man. I appreciate all your comments and all your, your messages, everything. Like, it literally keeps me going and it, it gives me the, the, the, the, the motivation to keep posting and just keep doing the most.
So hence why I’m showing face now. Unplanned video. Just like let’s just go film and here I am. Here we are.
Lesedi: You can still find Noks on YouTube. Although he posts to TikTok more often these days…
We asked him if he felt it was still necessary to be on social media to help other queer youth. And he said it’s 50/50. Even though things on YouTube have slowed down, he still gets messages from people saying his channel changed their lives.
But things are moving quickly. Trans kids younger than him are living more freely. They don’t feel the need to explain themselves to the world like he did.
Coming out online could have gone much worse for him. But he always knew he was willing to take the hits if it meant he was paving the way for the next generation to live more unapologetically.
“Here We Are” was written and produced by Noks Simelane, and Jo Jackson.
This episode is produced by the Radio Workshop and the Children’s Radio Foundation.
Jo Jackson is our Managing Producer.
Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast.
Additional production assistance by Martha O’Donovan and Naomi Grewan.
Music by Blue Dot Sessions. Sound engineering by Mike Rahfaldt. Our studio technician is Simz Kulla.
A big thanks to Catherine Grenfell and Audio Militia in Johannesburg, where we record this podcast.
This episode and the work of the Radio Workshop would not be possible without support from Steven Hendrickson, Pam and Bill Michealcheck, the Other Foundation, and The Theodore J. Forstmann Charitable Trust, and the Emerging Markets Foundation.
Visit our website for more information and to support our work at radioworkshop.org.