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cc The struggle against gender oppression in Kenya endures. Following the recent unlawful arrest and assault of a transgender woman in the country, Audrey Mbugua voices the subordination of those who do not comply with the restrictive gender-based identities adopted by society at large. Mbugua unlaces these societal constructs that tie their subjects to an existence of marginalisation and abuse. Mbugua suggests ignorance and bureaucratised discrimination amongst Kenyan society is to blame.

On 30 July 2010, a transgender woman (who I shall refer to as Storm) was arrested in Thika District in Kenya’s Central Province. She was arraigned in court for intent to commit crime and remanded thereafter in a female remand facility. It was discovered she didn’t possess ‘female genitalia’ the day after. She was thoroughly whipped by a warden for ‘causing the confusion’.

She was transferred to a police station and placed in isolation. While the senior officer was absent, one of the police officers transferred her to a male cell where she suffered sexual assault on top of being ‘baptised’ with a bucket full of urine. Her food was grabbed by some inmates. When she reported the matter to the senior officer, she was beaten up by the officer. Three weeks later a law court released her on a personal bond.

This case presents one of the many incidences of gender oppression transgender people in Kenya face. Gender oppression against transgender people takes the form of violence, sexual assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, victimisation and psychological torture.

The dynamics of these cases of gender oppression are not too hard to understand. First, people look at you and make the assumption that you are a man or a woman. Storm never mentioned that she was a female but the officers assumed she was. This is predicated by the assumption that there are only two sexes/genders: Male and female. Anything else has to be pigeon-holed in these narrow categories. Storm is a transgender woman and the best option would have been to have placed her in a ‘transgender prison facility’.

Secondly, it illuminates the invalid excuse called ignorance. Ignorance is used by many to justify the oppression of transgender people in Kenya. One police officer admitted that if the officers had known about the transgender identity, things would not have gotten out of control. What sort of moral and intellectual cowardice is this? Some of us transgender people don’t know much about pregnancy, but we don’t go around beating up pregnant women because they impersonate fat people. And why do people have to react so violently towards a transgender person? How is violence going to resolve the issue? Transgenderism is not an issue to us but it becomes an issue because people want it to be one.

A year ago, I reported a theft case in our local police post. A suspect was arrested, but not for long. The suspect told the police officers that I wasn’t a woman, but a man. The police released the suspect and raced hotfoot to my house. ‘We are arresting you for female impersonation’ said the leader. ‘And did I ever claim to be a female?’ I enquired. ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ asked the shorter one (Frodo). ‘Am none’ I answered to the boys in blue. ‘You can’t be neither, do you have two organs?’ they pressed. ‘You have no business knowing what I have between my legs and between my ears. Am a transgender, deal with that’ was my response. ‘What is transgender?’ both asked in unison. I explained the transgender concept in a simple way (considering who my audience was). ‘So, if you are a transgender, are you a male transgender or female transgender?’ they continued. ‘Am none of that. I said I am a transgender person. Your labels have no space in the world.’ Well, they went back to their station with their tails neatly tucked between their legs.

Storm revealed that one of the police officers brought his wife and two kids into the police station for a ‘freak show’. The police officer requested Storm to strip in the full view of the family. She refused and the officer rained blows on her as he tore her clothes. His family burst into laughter, aiming degrading remarks at her. Well, I am scared by this incidence because if this disfunctional family does not receive help soon, they will be picking prostitutes from the streets and torturing them before drinking their blood. As I said, ignorance is not the problem; it is the human propensity to harm vulnerable members of the community.

The politics of penises are evident in this sad tale. This is the assumption: A penis is a male organ and anyone having a penis is male/man. I have the greatest sympathy for this flabbiness in reasoning. A penis can also be a transgender penis. A transgender woman who has a penis is a transgender woman not a man/male. If anyone has a problem with that, then they must deal with it. Also, identities are personal and no one has the right to tell a transgender woman that she is a man because of so and so. We are sick and tired of people denying us our right to identity and dignity.

This reminds me of a confrontation I had with part of the gay community related to HIV programming for transgender people. Some experts coined the term ‘Men who have Sex with other Men’ (MSM), which initially was used as a behavioural term rather than as a noun. What these experts were ignorant about was that, whether the term is a behavioural term or a noun, it is disrespectful to refer to transgender women as men who have sex with other men. We are not men but transgender women. But then someone mentioned that most transgender women do have receptive anal sex with men, so the term serves them right. I don’t know where people got this rubbish from but I sincerely hope it will die out sooner than later. There are cisgender women (women born women) who have anal sex with men. Does that make them men who have sex with other men? In a nutshell: Their argument shoots itself in the foot.

This also takes us to the land of ‘misgendering’ transgender women by the gay hungry media and some sexual minorities organisations. A case in point is the just ended Tiwonge and Steven charade in Malawi. Tiwonge maintained she wasn’t male, but I guess a gay hungry media and some gay rights activists couldn’t hear of that. They reasoned: Tiwonge has a penis (and is therefore male), and Steven has a penis (and is therefore a male), so their union was a gay wedding. There is nothing wrong with gay weddings, but it is offensive to label a transgender person gay. You deny her the fundamental right to self-identity; you are simply calling her a man. She is not a man and it is also wrong to assume that a man dating a transgender woman is gay. Yes, explaining this to my 100 year-old grandmother might be a hair splitting exercise but it shouldn’t be quantum physics for the current crop of human rights activists. The valiant Monica Roberts wrote a moving publication about these shenanigans of turning transgender issues into gay issues:

‘We are getting beyond sick and tired of gay organizations misgendering and gayjacking transpeople's identities to fit their agenda … Hot on the heels of the misgendering and mischaracterization of the Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza relationship in Malawi as a 'same-sex' one… now comes the story out of Pakistan that an attempted marriage to a transwoman was broken up by Pakistani police.

'42 year old Malik Muhammad Iqbal and 19 year old transwoman Rani were arrested May 26 in Peshawar. She and the 43 other guests assert they were celebrating her birthday and Iqbal was just a friend… As the story unfolds, like clockwork the Advocate and some gayosphere blogs continue their ongoing patterns of misgendering Rani and other transwomen to pimp the story as a gay marriage issue.’[1]

I am not being polemic or running away from the gay label. I would not be allowed to get away with the following argument: Female genital mutilations are part of African cultures. Any woman who opposes it is running from the ‘traditional woman’ label. Why do people feel they have the right to put a label on us as if we are some kitchenware in a mall? Transgender people need to stop sucking up to mislabelling and proclaim their true identities.

While we support efforts by gay rights organisations to have same-sex marriages and decriminalise same-sex activities between consenting adults, we abhor this ‘gaynising’ trend and spinning of transgender issues into gay issues. It is not wrong to be gay or a lesbian, but it is wrong to refer to a transgender person as gay. It is like referring to a doctor as a carpenter – not because being a carpenter is wrong, but because it is incorrect. Let us respect one another for the sake of sanity.

Another appalling phenomenon in Kenya is the know-it-all attitude people have towards transgender matters. After Storm was released, our lawyer and I were doing the paperwork relating to the case. One police officer started ‘educating’ us on how transgender/transsexuality develops: ‘These people were sexually molested while young so their “male” genitalia no longer works,’ he lectured. What a crackpot! First, no one had asked (or cared) for his expert opinion. If we needed to know what causes transsexuality, we would have sought it from the necessary authorities, not from a police officer who is just trained to shoot. Why is it that people at any level of ignorance feel they have the capacity to lecture about transsexuality? Had Storm been arrested for creating an atomic bomb, would this officer have lectured us on nuclear fission? I don’t think so. Kenyans, please refrain from jumping unto our issues like stolen bicycles.

Some antagonists might resort to using religion to deny us our claim for a third sex. God created two sexes: Male and female. Nothing else and in-between, we should not find flaws in God’s creation. This is not a matter to be handled from a pulpit using some pre-medieval mumblings not worth more than the papers they were written on. Doctors, gender activists and policy makers should not lecture priests on giving ‘Christian children’ alcohol which is christened as the blood of Jesus. We don’t go around reprimanding our priests on the taste of the holy loaf of bread. It doesn’t bother gender activists in any way, the same way the third sex shouldn’t interfere with their holy duties.

The structural roots that sustain gender oppression against transgender people in Kenya are complex but they have solutions. We need the government to recognise the fact that some of us are simply not male or female. We would best fit in a third gender. Gender markers on official documents need to change. It would be best if we didn’t have gender markers at all. What is the purpose of having information in identification documents whose purpose is to give other people an idea of the kind of spanner you have in your pants? If this is untenable, then people who aren’t male or female should be recognised (as the third sex) and the necessary instruments put in place to ensure equality and affirmative action.


* 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] Monica Roberts. Transgriot 2010. Chill With The ‘Gayjacking’ of Trans Lives for Your Gay Agenda.