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In the aim of strengthening their cause, gay rights activism often compromises the identity and struggle of transgender people by lumping the two communities’ issues together, writes Audrey Mbugua.

There is a systematic ploy to erase the transgender community, experiences and lives. The ubiquitous actions that are slowly expunging transgender people from our civilisation and their pernicious nature are weighing heavily on the transgender community. It’s worth dissecting the issue for human rights activists to get a better perspective of how their activism is of benefit to transgender people. Luckily, there is a growing momentum in the transgender community to ensure the restoration of the dignity and autonomy of the community. There is a plethora of pitfalls – and mostly among the people who are targeted for re-education about the transgender concept.

Richard Feynman, an American physicist, once said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics then you don’t understand quantum mechanics. Without the fear of sounding cocky, I will say this: if you think you really think you understand the transgender concept, then there is a chance you don’t have the slightest clue what its all about, and might never be able to get it. The field of human rights activism targeting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is overflowing with fundamental flaws on the subject and issues of transgender people. The problem is further compounded by a similar lack of awareness among a large section of the donor community. The result of course is that you end up having a huge chunk of funds being utilised to marginalise and spread misinformation about transgender people. While I appreciate and recognise people’s freedom of speech – the right to say anything under the sun or moon (but away from the police) – and that there are communities out there who have been vilified and their rights violated, I will not don kid’s gloves in addressing the matter at hand due to the people involved. This is an educational approach and it would be immature for anyone to blow a gasket because they have been told they are wrong.


There are a number of stereotypes about women: they are soft, don’t fight back, are timid, cry for no reason, walk swinging their hips and, the most ubiquitous one, they all have broken wrists. There is a whole array of laws transsexuals have to abide by, some extending to who they should date. This phenomenon is referred to as gender-normative garbage (GNG). Some activists refer to it as hetero-normative (they are wrong) but that’s a topic for another day. Pamela Hayes[1] reveals that transgender women get entrapped by this to the point of being defenceless in the face of oppression.

‘Some transsexuals are so concerned with how they appear to people, that they come across like robots. I have been in the company of trans women who seem like they have no personality. They are so preoccupied with being sweet and ladylike that they come off acting like a machine.

‘So many times, trans women have been out in public and have been insulted by a store clerk or have had people to get in their face and utter pejoratives… “Why didn’t you say something to the person who insulted you?” … “But I don’t want to be unladylike.”

‘I don’t think saying something derogatory to someone who has insulted you is being unladylike. And maybe trans women need to knock it off with this perpetual ladylike garbage. Sometimes you can’t be ladylike. Circumstances preclude that.’

This gender policing means that transgender women have to conform to these laws or face censure, which can take the form of being called a man in a dress, sissy boy or bottom. At times the pain of seeing what transgender people have to put up with is so intense you nearly get an anger stroke. For example, we all recall the arrest and trial of Auntie Tiwonge and her boyfriend Steven in Malawi that sparked condemnation from local and international human rights fora. Despite the evident transgender status of Tiwo, these activists humiliated her over and over again for them to perpetuate the gay agenda in Africa. Instead of these activists taking the opportunity to educate others about the transgender concept and challenge the lack of laws that cater for people who are changing sex, they branded her and her boyfriend as male homosexuals. It’s only after their release that some gay activist made token noise that Tiwonge is indeed transgender, but the damage had already been done.

The gaynisation trend at times just catches you unaware. I was recently reading an article going by the name ‘Transgender rights are gay rights’ by Nathan Tabak.[2] The intention to write the article is clearly positive but was done is a manner that evokes pity towards him and those who share his philosophy. The philosophy is of mislabelling transgender people – by calling them gays – so as for gays to agree to support the transgender movement. It’s sad.

He first admits that the gay environment is not very friendly to transgender people:

‘While many gays and lesbians are fully accepting of transgender men and women, there's no question that transphobia is a major issue in the gay community.’

But, he shies off at the last fence in doing something positive by an indefatigable moral and intellectual cowardice:

‘The freedom transgender people deserve isn't just for them. It's for every person — gay, bi, straight, or anything else — who wants to be able to express their identity freely.’

But, if you put to account what transgender/transsexual is, you would realise that the issues of transgender people are not those of gays. Accessing sex-change operations is not an issue for gays or lesbians and neither is it an issue of all cissexual people. The ability to change your names and sex in academic papers is a transgender issue but it never features in the minds of gays. It’s even ironic that Nathan talks about people expressing their identities freely while he is busy shoving the gay label down transsexuals’ throats. For what? Maybe he thinks by transsexuals taking up the gay label, the gays will better accommodate them and see them as part of them and in need of their support. As we shall see below, such a move is a colossal waste of time and saliva.

But, should we compromise the transsexuals’ right to identity, self-determination and their autonomy for the gays to support their activism? Any gay or lesbian worth his or her salt would ridicule this idea because it is simply oppressive. Would it be okay if heterosexuals told gays that they had to cease being gay for them to accept them and support their activism for non-discrimination?

This gaynisation trend by some gays among gays is spectacularly unnecessary and in fact yields more transphobia by some gays and lesbians towards transsexuals.

Nathan’s article is followed by comments from some gays and lesbians whose blasphemous tongues are simply diametrically opposed to the spirit of the respect of the human rights of transgender people. Look at these:

‘I am a lesbian. I do not like transsexuals … I think to remove your penis, and insert said flesh inside of your body, or the other way around, is a cheap cop-out and a lazy way around the problems that really plague your heart… I am so incredibly tired of psychologically ill people using cross-dressing, third genders, and transgendered platforms to carry out their own fantasy, while the rest of us have to suffer…’

This lesbian (she said she is one) has some backing (as expected):

‘I'm a big butch I totally agree with Laureen… these cases need of mental help… there is a line between play and believe your own fantasies or desires as reality. This point or line makes the difference between sane or insane minds… I believe some people just played so hard that they lost the plot at some point in relation to their sexual identities and they trapped themselves in this situation… Gender must be defined by physical appearance not by a subjective personal opinion about who we want/believe about ourselves.’

I admire the courage of these people (the ability to say those words) but these words do have a negative effect on other people’s lives. We are sick and tired of people saying ‘I don’t have a problem with trans folks but…’ Why but? I don’t see their beeswax in our lives. No one asked for their opinion about us.

Nathan presents a section of gays who are burning the midnight oil, scrapping at the bottom of the barrel to find reasons to call transgender people gays. Even when he knew his move would draw a backlash against transsexuals, he went ahead to write his shenanigans in the name of supporting the transsexuals (by the way, no transsexual asked him for this favour) and which has resulted to a lot of psychological pain among transsexuals. Isn’t it crystal-clear that you don’t fight transphobia among gays and lesbians by calling transgender people gays to appease gays?

Also, there is the culture of using transgender people and lives during pre-colonial times to support the notion that homosexuality has always existed in the untainted African culture. Murray[3] is one such person who (among others) will use the African transgender phenomenon and their private affairs to pimp the idea that homosexuality is as African as heterosexuality. True, but it’s scandalous for these scholars to call transgender women homosexuals and use some of their sexual activities to pimp up their gay research.

What other consequences are there as a result of this mislabelling? Homosexuality is criminalised in Kenya – note the difference for some gays and lesbians say that LGBT people are criminalised (it’s wrong). You go around telling members of the public LGBT people are the gay community (but being transgender does not make one gay), then a transgender woman goes to the hospital for gender reassignment. Don’t you think she will be denied access to medical services because the doctors will think by providing hormones and surgery to her they are assisting to legalise homosexuality? And, extrapolate the same on changing names in identification documents like the ID card. Additionally, transgender people are more visible than gays and lesbians. During and after the transition, the parents/guardians or family and relatives will actually know about the transition (unless they are blind). Then amidst these ‘difficult’ times, they see some LGB individuals calling transgender people gays/homosexuals. What will be the reaction? They form a twisted and wrong picture of who their daughters or sons are. Note that I am not saying it’s okay for gays to be denied access to medical services. But you cannot turn transgender people into sacrificial lambs for the sake of activism. You are messing up people’s lives and surely they never gave you their consent for you to do so. Who loses out of this misinformation?

And let’s consider the ever-ridiculous habit of the images that LGBT organisations use to depict transgender people. What happens is they use a picture of a person busy applying a tonne of make-up and a wig. Then this person has to have features that are meant to say ‘it’s a man putting on make-up’, or a picture of a person with a very hairy torso and in a dress. This results in the world believing that transgender people are female impersonators, pretending to be women and going late at night to get unsuspecting straight men to sleep with them. They get accused of the crime of deception, which results in hostility and violence against transgender people.

Most people would point out at my imbalanced perspective of the dynamics of the LGB and transgender activism. There are some gays who are mature and don’t oppress transsexuals. I totally agree but am not in the business of counting evil sheep. I have so far refrained from making sweeping generalisations about gays and lesbians. Not all gays and lesbians oppress transgender people and in fact some great strides that have benefited transgender people have been made with the support of some gays and lesbians. And still there are people who are not gays and lesbians or bisexuals who have also made significant contributions in the lives of transgender people. We appreciate all these contributions but that should not preclude us from challenging all forms of oppression by the LGB community. If it’s a trade where some gays help us in return for us acquiescing our identities and lives and take on theirs then that’s unacceptable and we shall resist it to our graves.

And, is it wrong for transgender people to voice these concerns? I am not a confrontational person but I don’t support the idea of sucking up and apple-polishing, pretending the shoe ain’t pinching. Some may say it’s more prudent to let the issue pass; the gays might think we are being homophobic. Let’s give them more time; they will learn and understand us. Or maybe we might lose their support if we criticise the poverty of their activism when it comes to trans matters; they might think we are separating ourselves from them. These sentiments aren’t new to me. I have encountered these so many times that my head is still spinning. Well, the lack of courage among these individuals makes them fence-sitters, weak tea and frozen bacteria. Let’s stop ignoring the elephant that’s in the room. We have to acknowledge there are problems and create remedies to end the violation of the rights of transgender people within the LGB community.


* Audrey Mbugua is a member of Transgender Education and Advocacy, a Kenyan organisation formed to address social injustices committed against the country’s transgender community.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Pamela Hayes. How Dare You? TransGriot
[2] Nathan Tabak. Change.Org. Transgender Rights are Gay Rights.
[3] Stephen O. Murray. Homosexuality in “Traditional” Sub-Saharan Africa and Contemporary South Africa.