cc Deeply concerned about the profound discrimination experienced by Kenya's transgender community, Audrey Mbugua berates Kenyan society for its unjust treatment of a marginalised group. Rather than creating 'transgender rights' per se, Mbugua calls upon the country to view transgender people as human beings like any other group. Deeply scathing of Kenya's entrenched 'trans-phobia' and the divisive nature of different groups' competing for recognition, the author implores those marginalised to see themselves as part of a wider struggle for justice that transcends identity politics.
Identity politics refers to a political action to advance the interests of a group whose members perceive themselves to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalised identity (such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation).
Two weeks ago, a colleague of mine summoned me into his office and played a news clip dating back to August last year. It involves a Kenyan transgender girl been brutally beaten up in the streets by a group of women and men. Her face is swollen and her clothes torn. She begs for mercy but her pleading is drowned out by the laughter of women and children. She tries to cover her tiny breasts but a man uncovers them for the cameraman to capture it all. After this macabre footage, a female news anchor laughs before yapping about something else 'important' (probably the trauma of gender violence among abused women).
A week ago, I got hold of a collection of hallowing experiences that a group of Kenyan women went through during the infamous post-election violence. One of the accounts reveals a woman who was raped by a group of 11 policemen as her son watched in horror. In the process, she was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Another lady reveals that she had full-blown Aids and was bedridden when Kenya went to the elections in 2007. But this did not deter a group of Kenya’s General Service officers from raping her. She further revealed that her husband had died a year earlier and her health had deteriorated to the level of her giving up on anti-retroviral therapy. Apart from religious fanatics who believe everything happens for a purpose and God knows and plans everything, who would justify these horrendous acts? Who would want these things to happen to oneself whether there was any purpose or if God had planned them?
In all honesty, I can painfully admit that these are not unique cases. They are all connected by the fact that the mentality that gave direction to their purpose is rife in all facets of our communities and that we can’t simply wish them away. We only need to pick up a journal to read of a gang of men engaging in an orgy of massacre leaving 29 young men dead. We only need to watch the 7 o’clock news to see a young transgender woman being mercilessly beaten up and the news anchor laughing at such human rights violations. We only need a 26-year-old intelligent young man who has been ostracised by his community as a result of his HIV status knowingly spreading HIV in a college. The justification? He wasn’t born with HIV. A human being knowingly infected him and society rejected him for his condition. He will not die alone.
I will now delve into the problem of the violation of the human rights of Kenya’s transgender people. Four months ago, I was embroiled in a case where a transgender woman was attacked by members of the public. This woman was then arraigned in a law court and ultimately sentenced to a four-month prison term owing to being 'a public nuisance since she is a man wearing women’s clothes', as the police indicated in their occurrence book. While seeking to explain transgender identity to the police and probation officers (and the fallacies of their nebulous charges), a probation officer dismissed me and claimed that transgender people are not recognised by the government of Kenya. Well, I tried to correct him but his arrogance seems to have shut his mind for anything sensible.
Let me state something that I hope people will retain in their thick and tiny skulls: there is nothing about transgender rights or transgender people not being recognised in Kenya’s constitution. Transgender people in Kenya are human beings. The constitution of Kenya recognises us transsexual people by the mere fact that we are human beings. Transgender is an identity just like diabetic, disabled and comatose. The underlying argument this probation officer used was that the words 'transgender people' don’t appear in Kenya’s constitution. But let’s assume this probation officer has cancer (and I honestly hope he doesn’t get it). The words 'cancer patients' don’t appear in the constitution. Is it then okay that we go ahead and beat the crap out of the probation officer and have him incarcerated just because the constitution doesn’t 'recognise' cancer patients?
I will put it in a nutshell and I hope you people have some disk space left since your last Sunday service. If by any chance you deem it okay to make trans-people apologise for breathing the same air that Christians breathe, then cancer patients, tall, short, slim, myopic, diabetic, crazy, anaemic, impotent and fat people equally deserve to. Add to this list people infected with swine flu and any zoonotic diseases trans-phobic people catch in the process of fornicating with livestock. People have in a way come to accept that transsexual people have to be treated differently. The understanding nowadays is the parents of a 25-year-old transsexual woman need to send a 'no objection' letter to hospitals before transsexual people can access treatment. Why, people have not been educated on transsexualism and religious groups might sue hospitals! Please. Grow some nuts. I am not a walking transsexualism information machine. How many Christians understand the pathogenesis of cystic fibrosis? Almost zero. But does the public go around suing hospitals for treating cystic fibrosis? No. Then you people shouldn't try to convince me that ignorance is the problem. It’s malice and hatred.
You people create labels, brand people and obfuscate matters further by attaching the word 'rights' to the end of these labels, and since you know vague labels such as transgender with the word 'rights' are ultimately non-existent, you hope to engage in criminal activities and get away with it. It’s a paradigm close to what was done to women by patriarchy and even by privileged women. The liberation movement in Kenya in the late 1990s – and even as late as today – was focused on women’s rights. And the same oppressive system wants transsexual people to sit around the table with it and confer on transgender rights. No! This is not going to happen. There is nothing like transgender rights. But there are transgender people’s human rights. The same human rights other people, irrespective of their identities and diversity of any status, can invoke.
The irrational hatred of transsexual people can be viewed as tacit compensatory activity. Look at some Christian nut-heads busy roaming in our streets and subjecting our children to psychological torture by brainwashing them with stories of hellfire and God’s irrational vengeance for sinners. I could bet on one fact: this kind of people are the most wicked of the human species and to compensate for their guilty conscience, they have to create a particular class of people to act as the punching bag for their frustrations. Likewise, as a distraction from their overindulgence and greed. They don’t even have to plan for it, it comes out naturally. What a shame!
It’s a common practice for oppressed people to accept and respect condemnation from various quarters – and especially from the village pastor – just because the condemnation ends with a 'praise the Lord'. Well, I won’t be that respectful. I condemn rape whether it's done by Jesus, Muhammad, Hitler or by Satan himself. I also condemn rape whether it’s directed at a nun, a lesbian, an octogenarian, an infant, a pygmy, a sex worker or a bar hostess.
As we grow up, prejudice for particular communities or people incubates in our brains and with time hitting a transsexual person on her face for no particular reason becomes acceptable for non-transsexual people. Trans-phobia is not just a preserve of the airheads among us. The educated ones ain’t any better. In fact, it’s no wonder to hear an educated and sane adult asking whether it’s legal to treat transsexual people with sex-reassignment surgery. The starting premise here been transsexual people are an outlawed community. Wow! It’s as if the human brain has evolved to misunderstand transsexualism and transsexual people.
I once tried to create a collaboration between my organisation Transgender Education and Advocacy and a certain women’s organisation. I sent this organisation a general idea of transsexual identity and anti-transgender oppression and highlighted the striking similarities between the systems which oppress us. The coordinator declined my request, dismissing the transgender plight as a human rights issue and not a gender issue! This is one of the predicaments affecting liberation movements in Kenya. Michelle O’Brien (2003) discusses the deep intersection of our predicaments and the need for liberation movements to unite against all forms of oppression: 'The self-determination of trans people must rest on recognizing the deep interconnections of transphobia, patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and all other systems of domination. Global wars of power play out within our bodies and consciousness, and our liberation is inseparable from all others. A transfeminist politics, like any substantive revolutionary politics, must move beyond ranking identities and competing over scarce resources, and instead lie in a vision of struggle and freedom that encompasses all people.'
I can bet on one other thing: the system that denies women reproductive rights is the same that will deny transsexual people access to healthcare. The system that plays sexist games by sidelining women during promotions and appointments is the same system that discriminates against transsexual people in Kenya’s labour market. Transgender and cisgender women need to focus on their collective and personal experiences and create a liberation movement that will change the lives of all people in this country. Let our universal goals bring us together out of our diversities and be the motivator for our struggle for justice within Kenya overall.
* 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 http://www.pambazuka.org/.
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Boas J. 1996. We are Witnesses. Scholastic Inc.
Okello R. 2008. In the Shadow of Death. African Woman and Child.
O’Brien M. 2003. Trans Liberation and Feminism. Self determination, health care and revolutionary struggle. http://www.deadletters.biz/feminism.html
Wikipedia 2008 Identity Politics, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_politics