Family and Friends Gather for
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR)
by Neo Musangi
Kenya, 17 November 2013
It is 11am on a warm Sunday morning in Nairobi. Nairobi’s CBD is unusually calm devoid of its typical week-day hustles with scores of people going about their business while unashamedly minding everyone else’s business: From making unsolicited commentary on the way others are dressed to swearing at touts precariously swinging on matatu doors in the thick of rush hour madness. In today’s calming city space it is easier than usual to watch passers-by read the numerous manilla papers− with elaborate writing− placed next to amputated limbs with wounds exposed to dust and heat and walking away either after throwing a few coins and a shaking of the head or with faces that have not shown any emotion for the last god-knows-how-many years. Except for the gradually increasing number of street preachers and the equally alarming number of children under five years grabbing and desperately hanging on to kikoi-clad mzungus walking from the weekend open-air Maasai market, the city is uninterestingly flat. This is Nairobi. We have forgotten how to feel. Everyone is hustling (a glorified way of thinking through poverty and wage slavery except for the self-named chief hustler Hon. William Ruto, the country’s Deputy President).
Outside the Hilton Hotel a number of people sit with their casual not-in-a-hurry faces stealing glances (others just rudely stare in a typical Nairobi kind of way) at the small crowd gathering at the hotel’s entrance. Before Mel*, Mapenzi and a friend with whom we have just arrived can spot Jeff, he has already seen us and started walking towards us with his usual charming smile. Jeff identifies as a transboi and is a committed trans*-activist in Kenya whose politics on gender never cease to amaze me. Immediately after Jeff joins us we all scream with excitement as Lyn walks towards us. It is the first time that I meet Lyn despite knowing about her and even being on a number of list serves with this vocal transwoman. Lyn has been the face of transgender persons in Kenya for a while now and I am beyond exhilarated to meet her. I introduce myself to her and like me, she has heard of me. Everyone is in good shape and high spirits. We ignore the public eye and noisily walk into the Hilton Hotel. Of course we are a very unlikely bunch of guests into this five-star hotel whose guards are more familiar with the suit-clad-serious-looking men and the kitenge-clad-and-weaved variety than this ilk in t-shirts and bow-ties. It is clear that the guards cannot frisk us based on the usually taken-for-granted gendered criteria. They opt not to. Great, point driven home.
There are about twenty-four people in the Amboseli (not the National Park) meeting room where the Trans organization, Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA) has convened a meeting for Nairobi-based Trans* persons, their friends and families to commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) is globally set for 20 November annually in memory of Trans* persons whose lives have been lost in the battle against Transphobia. However, given that the 20th falls on a Wednesday, TEA has opted for the Sunday just before the international TDoR.
As it is common in Kenya, the meeting starts with a prayer then speeches from one selected trans person and TEA’s advocate, a Prof. Odhiambo. I brace myself for an interesting day. I am right. The speech from Njugush starts with an exercise on acceptance and acts of love. Njugush, is a transman in his forties, a board member at TEA and a member of the Intersex, Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming group, Jinsiangu. Njugush asks all trans persons at this meeting to stand up, followed by the accompanying family members. He then asks the family members to walk up to their trans child, brother, sister, niece, nephew or cousin, hug them and acknowledge them for opening up regarding their transgender identities. This is an exciting but also emotionally intense exercise since only five of the ten trans persons in the room, have family members present. In this exercise, Njugush asks the five (without family) to briefly explain why their families did not come for the meeting.
According to Lenny, a transman from Jinsiangu, he did not even bother inviting his family because he knew that they wouldn’t come. The first time that he told his parents about his wishes that he were a boy, Lenny was only fourteen years old and he again initiated the conversation when he turned seventeen. In the two instances, while his mother was both disappointed and upset, his father was furious and took him for an exorcism that he remembers as ‘physical torture by religious leaders’. Njugush himself can relate, in a number of ways, with Lenny’s experience as he too does not have any family members present at this meeting. However, Njugush’s reason for not having his parents here are slightly different. He has an ageing mother who has for the past 40+ years denied Njugush’s transgender status and to whom Njugush has consciously decided to not reveal his transgender identity. As Njugush explains, the only time that his now 71 year-old mother and him spoke about issues around trans* identities was after seeing Audrey Mbugua (real name) on national television. According to Njugush, his mother was certain that although her child had always been ‘like a man’ he was most definitely not like Audrey.
Quite understandably, most Kenyans imagine that Audrey Mbugua is the only trans person in the country since she has been a lot more out in public than most other people within the trans* community. Secondly, even though Audrey’s case has been highlighted a few times especially in mainstream media, there have been a couple of instances in which being transgender has been collapsed with either/both being intersex or/and with (homo)sexual identities and orientation. This is not to pretentiously make a case for an understanding of trans* populations outside the myriad of ways in which they, like cisgender populations, experience sexuality. Some trans* persons may identify as heterosexual while others may straddle a number of other untidy sexual identities ranging from gay/lesbian/bisexual to queer, asexual and pansexual. However, as Njugush’s mother and has Audrey Mbugua’s case have both demonstrated, being transgender/transsexual in Kenya is only understood within a very particular and stigmatized understanding of mental illness. The constant and often sole focus on Gender Identity Disorder (GID), as Audrey has often done and as Njugush does at this meeting, risks creating an atmosphere in which being transgender is construed as a curable medical condition and closes any public discussions around choice and bodily autonomy especially given Kenya’s obsession with heteronormative national legislation.
Nonetheless, in the next exercise, Njugush passes around a newspaper cutting that shows co-joined twins now in their early 20s. Njugush’s analogy of transgender persons with these two comes to me as a shock or is perhaps a little unexpected. In a later conversation with the only other gender non-conforming person in the group Mel, we seem to share similar concerns on the continued emphasis on the pathological explanation of being trans* in Kenya. Given that we do not identify as transgender, however, we agree that perhaps by explaining their identities as medical, trans persons in Kenya stand a better chance at being accepted into ‘society’. Beyond this medical analogy, some trans* individuals emphasize the difference between their gender identity struggles and the sexual identity struggles of gay, lesbian and bisexual persons. As Lyn puts it: “This thing [being transgender/transsexual] has been confused with so many things. It has been confused with gayism [sic], lesbianism [sic] etc. I’m not saying that anyone is bad because as a rational human being, I know that everyone is entitled to non-discrimination”. This is understandable especially within particular strands of trans-activism because of the priviledging of gay and lesbian identities at the expense of trans* persons within the LGBTIQ movement on the continent and in Kenya, in particular. However, the repetition of this negation at this meeting creates conditions for reducing transphobic attitudes at the expense of increased homophobia especially if we do not continue to emphasize the link between both struggles as grounded in problematic gender binaries and norms. Our trans friends Mapenzi and Jeff seem to agree with us but as Prof. Odhiambo explains in his speech, many Kenyans know gays and lesbians but have no clue about transgender identities. This invisibility of transgender persons, Prof. Odhiambo says, makes acceptance even more difficult for trans persons because “people fear what they don’t know”.
In the rest of his speech, Prof. Odhiambo focuses on the society within which transgender persons live beyond one’s family and how the attitudes and ‘culture’ of that [Kenyan] society impact on the lives of trans persons. According to Prof. Odhiambo, “We live in a society where things must happen in a particular way. If you were born facing East; you must walk facing East. If you are seen facing North then people will question you on why you are facing North. You are not part of that society. A path is already planned and boundaries marked”. These attitudes, Prof. Odhiambo best explains using his court battles with Audrey’s name change and TEA’s registration. As Prof. Odhiambo tells us, although there is no particular legislation that bars Kenyans from changing their names, “when its Audrey [Mbugua] we have to go to court because the guy seated at that desk thinks, ‘this is a male name and this is a female name’ and think it’s a sin to change that name”. However, as Prof. Odhiambo closes his speech, there is some hope in the room as he asks trans* persons to be more visible so that Kenyans do not only imagine that there are no other transgender persons except for Audrey. Prof. Odhiambo is hopeful that soon there will be laws in Kenya that will protect Kenya’s transgender population as the name-change battle has partly been won already. I want to believe him but I am a little skeptical. Only time will tell.
In the next session of the meeting is a screening of the 2007 documentary, Trained in the Ways of Men, which focuses on the murder case trial of 22 year-old Gwen Amber Rose Araujo. Gwen Araujo was a transwoman murdered at a house party on 03 October 2002 and secretly buried in Newark, California. In this documentary, Gwen’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, opens up about the media’s mis-gendering of Gwen throughout the trial by using her birth name (Edward/ Eddie) as well as the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’, something that the all-male jury also constantly does in what has come to be known as the ‘gay panic defence’. (See Trained in the Ways of Men on youtube and Girl Like Me: Gwen Araujo Story on youtube). In the discussion that follows this screening, a number of reflections are brought to the fore. The most striking is Sylvia’s courage and ability to continue loving her daughter and to even request the judges to posthumously change Gwen’s legal name from Edward Araujo to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo. This act of love most resonates with Annabel’s mother, who admits that although she has been very supportive of Annabel she, unlike Sylvia, does not have the courage to stand what she calls the ‘public eye’. As one of the most supportive parents in Kenya’s trans* network, Annabel’s mother expresses her desire to be publicly outspoken as a mother of a transgender child and as an ally of the trans* community. However, as she tells us, she is yet to find a language to advocate on transgender issues as she lacks the confidence to face a deeply ignorant Kenyan society.
The rest of the discussion focuses on the need for trans* persons to take responsibility for their safety within the highly transphobic contexts within which they live. Although the discussion does take a number of disturbingly moralizing prejudices based on Christian values, we all agree that as trans* persons we cannot afford to engage in the same kind of victim-blaming that has so often been used against victims of hate crimes. After all as Njugush puts it, “we cannot use ‘improper’ dressing as a reason for attacking transwomen because according to society, all of us as trans* people in this room are not properly dressed. We are all wearing the wrong clothes”. By the end of the day we all seem to agree with Lenny (Jinsiangu) that “Society will always judge you; just be yourself. Be responsible and accountable”.
*All names in this article, except in the Audrey Mbugua case, have been changed for purposes of individual safety.