A few weeks ago, many Kenyans were unaware that gender identity disorder exists. That was until a transgender woman Audrey Mbugua sued the Attorney General and the Kenya National Examination Council for making it near impossible for her to get new examination certificates reflecting her new gender.
Audrey Mbugua, who was born Andrew Mbugua, argued that the fact that her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education bears a different gender and name, she has been unable to get a job which was a violation of her rights.
Audrey’s case however is not an exception: neither in terms of the ridicule she has faced, nor yet in terms of the incomprehension and intolerance that gender identity disorder tends to bring out in even the most liberal and open minded global societies.
A few weeks back, a supreme court in Maine, US listened to another case of Nicole, a 15-year-old transgender girl who attended Maine public schools. According to the report by New Republic.com, Nicole now self-identifies as a girl even though she was born biologically a boy.
In addition to the harassment she faced from other kids, Nicole also met intolerance by school officials, who refused to allow her to use the girls’ bathroom. Instead, in a remarkably insensitive decision, the school required her to use a staff bathroom after a grandparent of a male student complained that Nicole shouldn’t be allowed in the little girls’ room.
Nicole’s parents took her out of the school and sued the school, claiming their daughter’s ‘potty segregation’ was a violation of the Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against transgender people on the basis of their gender identity.
In Colorado, the parents of a six-year-old girl have challenged their local school district’s refusal to permit their daughter to use the girls’ room because, biologically, the girl was born a boy and retains male genitalia. School authorities said she can use any other bathroom in the school—the boys’ bathroom, the staff bathroom, or the one in the nurse’s office—just not the one for girls. In Arizona, lawmakers have been considering a bill to prohibit transgender people from using the biologically “wrong” bathroom.
Due to the lack of understanding by the general public and advocacy groups, most times persons with a gender identity disorder are labeled as gays, drug queens, hermaphrodites, she-he’s, he-she’s and cross-dressers. They don’t understand that transsexualism/transgenderism is an issue of gender identity and expression. It has nothing to do with your sexuality or sexual orientation.
Transgenderism traces its origins back to 1503BC during Queen Hatshepsut reign, she identified as a man throughout her reign. Over the years, a number of personalities have also come out as being transgender, they include Chaz Bono who was until his sex change singer Cher’s daughter. Isis King who appeared in America’s Next Top Model Cycle 11 and 17. Renee Richards, a professional tennis player from the 1970s. She is the world’s most famous transsexual athlete. Richards, who was born Richard Raskind, managed to create a new life for herself as a woman after a sex change operation in 1975.
Whatever has been achieved in terms of greater tolerance and more open-mindedness towards transgender people, has been the result of more and more transgender individuals – both men and women – coming out to demand recognition and to insist on their rights to live as they choose, insofar their choices and lifestyle do not harm anyone.
Indeed at this very point in time, Mel Wymore, is making history as the first transgender candidate for the New York City Council.
Wymore, who began life as a woman, Melanie Wymore, had a successful career and even got married and had two children. Eventually coming to terms with his “true gender”, Wymore then undertook surgical and other changes so he could live as a man.
In Kenya, when Audrey’s story hit the news, it turned into a media circus with each media house trying to outrun the other in covering the story of the boy who wants to be a girl. Once they had covered the ‘bizarre’ story of the week, they moved on to the next big story, further reinforcing that the media has also been partially responsible for negativity that transgender people face in Kenya through their biased reports.
The systematic dehumanisation of transgender persons through words, images and the lack thereof of words and images that represent the totality of their experiences is actually what contributes to others seeing them as less than human therefore justifying the human rights violation they face. Kenya’s first public transgender person was a woman only identified as Rose. She made headlines in the 1980s after she got sex reassignment surgery because gender identity disorders were unheard of then.
Following her surgery, her life became a nightmare. According to reports, Rose was constantly a subject of ridicule. She was ostracised and couldn’t get a job or support because she was viewed as a disgrace and recluse in the society.
Six months after her surgery, following all the stress and depression she was battling, Rose took her own life. Most people feel like speaking on taboo matters such as transgenderism offends common decency and family values that we want to believe in as a society.
Offensive or not it doesn’t make the issue go away. This is one of the reasons that prompted Audrey to set up Transgender Advocacy and Education to sensitize people on the issue of trangenderism, while giving transgender people a safe heaven. Currently they have 40 members, unlike Audrey, most of them prefer anonymity because they know their families and friends would never accept them as they are.
This raises the possibility that among the many Kenyans who yet see transgender people as an aberration – or, even more insultingly, as an abomination – there may well be people whose brothers and sisters, or even husbands and wives, are quietly yearning “to be recognized for who they really are”.
When I first did my research on this issue about 11 months ago, I assumed that Audrey was the only transgender person in Kenya. She later introduced me to a number of other transgender men and women, most of whom live a double life for fear of being rejected by the ones they care about.
As I interacted with them, they made me understand the anguish they experience every day, battling the fact that their gender expression or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.
If they could, they would definitely try to conform to their assigned gender, life would be easier for them but it’s not that simple, gender identity disorder is not something that you can wish away or medicate and cure.
My appeal would be directed to the National Cohesion and Integration Commission led by Chairman Mzalendo Kibunjia to take up this matter to come out and defend the rights of transgender people as a recognised minority. This falls under their mandate to elimination of all forms of discrimination based on ethnic, racial, religious and social origin in Kenya.
But even this is only a short-term solution to deal with the immediate challenge of intolerance. More fundamentally, we need new legislation which specifically addresses the exceptional needs of our transgender minority, and lays out guidelines for their protection.
Moving forward, as a society, we also need to be more understanding of minority groups and stop using religion as a defense to lock them out. As US President Barack Obama recently noted; you can’t deny people their basic rights and pretend it’s about your ‘religious freedom’. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.