My time in Kenya has forced me to confront a lot of things, and ironically, many of them had nothing to do with Kenya itself, nothing to do with Africa even- but with issues closer to home.  Today’s story has to do with one such incident, where I had to reconcile the misunderstandings and hurt on both sides of an acronym that I very strongly associate myself with: LGBT.

In the US, there’s been a rich history of transphobia within the LGBT community- the 1960’s women’s movement saw the exclusion of transwomen as “not woman enough” for their women-identified spaces, the 1980’s AIDS movement unearthed the ignorance that most LGB people didn’t know they had about trans health issues, and the 1990’s and 2000’s struggle for LGBT rights most often allowed the “silent T” to drop away into the background as the HRC focused on bigger ticket items like gay marriage, the Employee Non-discrimination Act (which now has a clause about transgender employees, although it didn’t for quite a while), and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

I haven’t been terribly active in trans-activism back in the states, but I never associated myself with the transphobia of the LGB community either.  I felt, having been around the Queers and Allies group and the LGBT resource center where the “silent T” has been recognized and embraced much more than in other spaces,  that the worst of transphobia was over.  I recognized, of course, the struggles that trans people faced in the medical community, in relationships with their families and the general ignorance of much of the population, but at least within the LGBT community, I believed there was a unity that had grown to re-encompass trans and intersex individuals.

Then I came to Kenya.  And I met a representative from Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA), a non-profit in Nairobi that I wanted to get involved with during my study abroad.  Now I won’t turn this into a sob story, but I felt safe enough in our shared marginality to tell the TEA rep that I was a lesbian (a crude rendering of my sexuality, but it would do for the time), assuming that it would bring me some legitimacy in wanting to work with the group.

Instead, I was treated to an hour-long monologue about LGB discrimination of the transgender community.  The tropes were all there: that all gay people think trans people are closeted gays trying to escape their sexuality by transitioning, or that they’re just confused.  But most crucially, ze emphasized the necessity of allying with “straight” people (cis or trans), over any LGB-identified people.

I was crushed, not only because of the hurtful way ze portrayed all LGB people as ignorant and prejudice, but for my own “blindness.”  I blamed myself for my classmates, my friends, my teachers- anyone who I had ever explained anything to about trans issues, I took their “ignorance” on my shoulders.  I hated the fact that no one understood, that people hated, and I accepted the stigma that the TEA rep attached to me.

Yet I tried to prove zir wrong.  I sent zir my trans-related blog posts and the videos I’d been using to illustrate the way false dichotomies apply to misunderstanding sexuality AND gender.  But I was met with silence.

After about a month of waiting, I realized something: it wasn’t me.  I can’t be held responsible for anyone’s actions but my own, and I had clearly illustrated in every action I had taken to this point- the initial contact, going out of my way to verify my identity, to meet with TEA, the email correspondence- that I wasn’t a representative of the prejudiced aggregate that TEA had in mind.  I was just Bianca, and I had done nothing wrong.  At this point, I will admit, yes, I got a little tactless.  I sent a rather nasty email to TEA about how frustrated I was with the organization, and with the rep in particular, for making me feel like a bad person about the community I belong to, and for abusing the trust I put in zir when I came out (to date, I’ve only come out to two other Kenyans).

“… If this is how you treat the most accommodating of allies, you will never be able to expand and make your cause visible.  I approached TEA because I believed that you understood the commonalities between trans* and LGB people- not that our desires are the same, or even our legal rights, but that we both know what it’s like to be villanized by society, thought of as confused at best and sinful at worst.  We both know what it’s like to be afraid to ‘come out’ to our friends and family, to worry who knows and how that will affect our careers and our personal lives.

It is therefore INSULTING that A—-  would treat me with so little respect, and then on top of that, to ignore my emails.  Anger and isolation fixes none of your problems.  It alienates those friendly to your cause and leaves you alone and impotent.  You can write as many fiery articles and submit them to all the newspapers you want- but if you can’t appreciate and network with the allies you have, you will get nowhere.”

And I got an equally nasty email in response:

I sincerely hope you have learn’t (sic) something about how best to work with trans people. Don’t impose your ideas on them, listen to them and do what is necessary. I assume you would never want to be seen as a bad one. I mean I am not that popular with gays and lesbians because of my work in challenging their oppression against trans people – and I don’t need them to like me. You mentioned that we have been bad in getting allies; I do
spend sleepless nights wondering about that, and do know what happens after that? I fall asleep. There are allies and there fake allies. I would rather we get 2 allies than 100 fake people whose only preoccupation is undermining our autonomy and pitying us against heterosexuals.

And its not just a problem with you or those people am alluding to. I see it in most donors. They just don’t understand who transgender people are. They all assume LGBTI people are homosexuals and project on homosexuality are what they need. And some people there get neglected and marginalized. And you [are] here insulting them.

You don’t know how bad it is. The very people who talk about human rights can insult (not once) trans people knowingly. That a homosexual man can call a trans woman a sick homo male. That a pack of lesbians will be busy calling a trans woman a man stabbing her back and posing security threats against her. But, you think that’s okay and nothing needs to be done because trans people need “allies”.

Its okay since am used to that kind of hostility.

From all of this, I figured out a few things:

  1. I need to do my homework about the trans/intersex situation in the US- I want to be part of the conversation there, but I don’t have the contacts or the experience to do that yet.  Being queer doesn’t automatically make me an expert on trans issues
  2. But being queer also doesn’t make me the enemy.  TEA was going to hate me whether or not my blogs were good, whether or not I had experience working with trans populations.  Zir prejudice is the same blatant over-generalization that ze zirself suffers from on a daily basis.  Turning it around on me doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes zir a hypocrite.
  3. We aren’t all the way there in regards to trans issues, but we are making progress.  And I honestly believe that a strong partnership between LGB and trans/intersex people is and will continue to help.
  4. Moreover, ANYONE who has a good heart- cis or trans, gay or straight, educated or honest but ignorant- and truly wants to help is a real ally, and someone worth partnering with.  Even if it means taking a few steps back from your own position and figuring out how to make that partner better, more informed, less prejudiced, more effective, it’s worth it.  Let people help you.  Real allies are the ones who love unconditionally, even if they express that love in crude ways.  If you are one of those people who feels like they need a little more information to understand and support the Trans and Intersex community, start by going over Midnight Philosophy and Gender Identity from way back at the beginning of this blog, then look here for more resources.

Anywa, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything at all on here, so here’s a quick review of some trans-related things that have happened since I up, up, up and flew away to Kenya

  1. Transgender Women Featured on a Popular Nepali Magazine

    Nepal is counting its transpeople!

More than just including transgender individuals in the census statistics, Nepal has made  incredible strides in all areas of inclusiveness in an amazing 180 degree turn-around for a country that only 3 years ago still jailed people for engaging in “unnatural sex acts.”  A court case in 2007 began this momentum towards LGBT-friendly policy by proclaiming that:

“The government of Nepal should formulate new laws and amend existing laws in order to safeguard the rights of these people. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex are natural persons irrespective of their masculine and feminine gender and they have the right to exercise their rights and life an independent life in society.”

Now, equal rights are guaranteed under the constitution, same-sex marriage is legal, and Pink Mountain, a Nepalanese travel agency started by the Blue Diamond Society, a gay rights organization, is planning to hold gay wedding ceremonies on Mount Everest.

Although these new measures are definitely still met with controversy (Nepal is a heavily Hindu country, and homosexuality and transgenderism are not viewed incredibly favorably), the push for more recognition of the LGBT community is a huge step in the right direction.  Read the rest of the article to see how it relates to the tourism industry, which is fascinating.  But take it all with a grain of salt: of the 200,000 people in Nepal who identify as transgender, only 5 of them (yes, FIVE) have citizenship papers, which allow them to receive medical treatment for transitioning, as well as normal basic services like access to education and jobs.

2. A new report was released by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force detailing the struggles of trans youth in school and home life, including bullying, hate crimes, youth suicide, and homelessness.

It’s truly terrible that this has become old news for me- that I’m no longer shocked to hear that being transgender increases the likelihood that a teen will commit suicide by 2500% (in other words, trans kids attempt suicide at a rate 25 times higher than cis-gendered teens) or that 78% of trans or genderqueer students face harassment, physical assault (35%) and sexual violence (12%) at school- to the point where  one-sixth (15%) opted to leave school.

The report is entitled “Injustice at Every Turn,” which is an apt title, and an indicator of just how ridiculously far we still have to come as a nation.  Yet despite the bad news, there are some bright spots to the report:

Although the survey identified major structural barriers to obtaining health care, 76% of transgender respondents have been able to receive hormone therapy, indicating a determination to endure the abuse or search out sensitive medical providers.

Over three-fourths (78%) reported feeling more comfortable at work and their performance improving after transitioning, despite reporting nearly the same rates of harassment at work as the overall sample.

Of the 26% who reported losing a job due to bias, 58% reported being currently employed and of the 19% who reported facing housing discrimination in the form of a denial of a home/apartment, 94% reported being currently housed.”

But let’s try to end on a positive note.  I’ve learned a lot through my interactions with TEA and my individual research on trans/intersex/genderqueer issues, and though I’m no expert, this I do know: it is never too late to educate yourself.  It’s never too late to add your voice to the chorus of those fighting for trans and intersex rights.  And no matter what A——- and TEA say, there is room for you in the fight, be you gay, straight, trans, cis, Democrat, Republican, or something in between.  If you are willing to speak your mind and stand up for what is right, then you’re an ally.  And to those people who suffer these terrible injustices, let us say- We’re with you.