Tag Archive: Kenya

One More Gay Kenya Post

The great thing about the summer after my abroad semester is the slow pace, which has allowed me some time to process my feelings about living in Kenya and to confront a lot of the difficult realizations I came to during my time there.  And many of those realizations are intertwined very tightly with my identity as a queer person.

Being queer abroad wasn’t as repressive as I was expecting (because frankly, my standards were pretty low), but it was hard.  I didn’t have the freedom for self-expression that I was used to, and I had to continuously deny the most positive relationship in my life- that of my loving girlfriend of almost two years.  I felt stifled and cut off from my activism and my identity.

I think the pressure I felt most acutely, however, was the pressure to make the homophobia I felt around me into “not a big deal.”  Because I was in Kenya and because all of the students of the trip were dealing with difficult issues of color, race, wealth, and especially gender, my concerns became relatively less important. It’s fairly obvious that I still have trouble talking about my time in Kenya, though, and about the things I did think and feel.  I tend to skirt around details, get caught in self-referential circles to nowhere, only alluding to the things that have really hurt me.      But I think it’s because I can never entitle myself to the pain, when we all went through so much there.  My whole group faced a lot of hard decisions, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt in our work and the future of our host country, and the goodness of its people.   I could never hone the hurt down to just homophobia, to just being closeted, because it was so many things more than that.  And it was more than that for everyone else- so I haven’t accepted that my load was just a little heavier than some of my classmates.  Even writing the fact seems wrong. I still won’t believe it as true.

Why?  Homophobia in Kenya is not blatant: it is not Prime Ministers getting up on podiums to denounce the homosexual menace.  It is not men screaming and spitting on effeminate boys walking through the Central Business District.  It is not even, generally, underhanded allusions to prostitution or moral decay.  Homophobia in Kenya is rarely offered outright- it has to be drawn from people with the right questions.  Thus, if you DO ask those questions, and you DO get offended, well, who is to blame but you, right?

And that’s the most poisonous part.  That the men and women you genuinely try to befriend- the coworkers and classmates and even the guards and maids who inhabit your daily routine- are all seeping with that ignorance and hate underneath.  There’s such a beautiful gloss over homophobia in Kenya, and yet, knowing that it’s just a gloss makes it all the more painful.

Part of me wishes that someone could have told me.  Part of me believes it would have made me better prepared.  And yet, mostly, I realize that it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference.  Indiana University, long known as one of the most friendly LGBT campuses in the US, created a whole website for LGBT students studying abroad (as well as for international educators and staff welcoming international students to the US), and there are a few useful documents- notably their checklists of What Can An International Student Orientation Program Do? and What Can a Study Abroad Office Do? which help college staff in charge of study abroad and international students to better incorporate LGBT concerns into their programming- but for the most part, the   advice on the site rings hollow.  It has little to do with my actual experiences in Kenya.  It offers little insight, and no therapy.

Because how can any website give me permission to feel betrayed by homophobia, when the people who hold it in their hearts suffer so many injustices that I can’t even fathom?  How can any essay tell me it’s ok to say I had it harder than my friend who was harassed almost daily walking through Nairobi, who was denied exit from public transportation one day and driven into some remote part of the city against her will?  How can I grieve when my weakness feels oppressive to those who have suffered and continue to suffer more than me?

I honestly don’t know, and I fear that if I cannot accept these contradictions in my experience, I won’t be able to move on with my life.  But there’s no one that can help me with it.  It has to come from inside.

As for those of you who are looking to study abroad, especially in Middle Eastern or African programs, let this be a warning for what you’ll have to face, but not one meant to dissuade.  Being in Kenya was the most meaningful experience of my life to date, and despite all the pain, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  The best thing I can suggest is that you look through IU’s list of weblinks to regional organizations that deal with LGBT issues abroad.  There is some comfort in knowing that there are groups fighting stigma and homophobia/transphobia everywhere, however small and often isolated their influence is.  Because when it comes down to it- when you’re finally there, confronting a whole new world- there’s nothing left to be done but to go on living.


Questions from Kenya

Eastlands in Nairobi, Kenya

Bianca is back from Kenya!

One of the things we were told about study abroad semesters is that the hardest part is often re-integration into your old society, your “normal” life, and the habits, obligations, and tedium that comes with it. Personally, I’ve found it tricky to adjust to certain elements of simplicity: the store is open when I need it to be, the phone number on the website is correct, the person I am meeting shows up on time and has the information I need.

But there’s a significantly scarier aspect of returning: the future. In Nairobi, I rarely had to worry beyond the next two weeks. If I could get through these small hurdles, make it back to the US where I was on familiar ground, everything would work itself out. But now that I’m here, I have to deal with the fact that I don’t have a plan.

My semester abroad has, in short, nearly shattered my belief that international development groups can do any good, and it has certainly destroyed the illusion that such work can dramatically change the world we live in. I’ve been mourning this loss of optimism for a while, and I know I still have a long way to go towards understanding it.

The larger question relative to this problem is where I go from here. I still feel very strongly that, in whatever small way, I want to be changing the status quo in our society; I want to be improving the lives of others. My primary medium for this has fallen through. I have contemplated many times the possibilities for going into some line of work with sex-positive advocacy, which falls in line with this blog, my interests, and my desire to see healthier, less shame-filled world. But at the same time, I question: Is that enough? Which is why Midori’s article, “Teaching Blowjobs and Bondage in Disastrous Times” hit home for me. Midori is a blogger, activist, and community sex-educator (as well as published author and bondage expert) who’s home country of Japan was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit during my time in Kenya. Her conflict between doing the work that she loves in the sex-positive community contrasts sharply with a feeling of helplessness, loss of direction in the face of such overwhelming tragedies.

“The world is falling apart and I’m teaching fine cock sucking. Am I just playing in the band as the Titanic sinks? My birth nation is having a nuclear meltdown, and I’m carrying on teaching blowjobs and bondage, while fundraising for HIV.”

And yet her conclusion is positive and affirming of the life she lives:
“I cannot do anything to undo the disaster personally. I convince myself that moving forward is the only productive things I can do right now. I persuade myself that even the smallest act of ethical citizenship is better than blind panic. “

I like Midori, and I’m happy for the pride she had in her work, for the sureness with which she faces uncertainty, and for the way she can keep perspective on the micro-successes in a world of macro-failures.

But it is from that frame that I draw questions. Can I, who have always dreamed big, reconcile my desire for “regime shift” in a world of small changes? If so, can I still do development work, in some way, in the US? I know for certain that I am unable to affect the change I desire internationally, but do I have the strength and focus to do so here at home? If not, how would sex-positive work be different? Moreover, when disaster strikes and the world seems to fall in upon itself—when catastrophe makes my own individual contributions look foolishly small—how do I proceed? What, at the end of the day, will allow me to rest, knowing that I have done all I could for the world?

If these seem like lofty questions, then you understand some of what I’ve been dealing with the past 4 months, and, to an extent, for years previous.

The small correlation I’ve found, which gives me some comfort as I contemplate all of this, is a short article by The Sexademic, a great new blog I’ve started following. The article, “No Pleasure in the Ghetto” gives the short and dirty of how sex-positive messages are stifled from reaching lower-income and ethnic minority populations:

“There is a sharp contrast between sex education for the socially privileged and sex education for the socially disadvantaged. In my time as a sex educator, I’ve worked with a broad range of populations and anytime I work with minorities, youth or poor people, the only things the organizations want me to talk about are STIs and condoms.”

This is a legitimate concern, and one that is especially relevant in the oreo city that is Washington, DC. Our population is over 50% African-American, with strong presents of Hispanics, and other minority populations. These groups are not getting the information they need to live healthier sex-positive lives.

[But the choice to wear a condom] “is informed by far more than having a condom or not having a condom. That choice is informed by social messages, by power dynamics, by understanding risk, by a personal sense of agency. If you don’t address these issues, you can’t expect someone to practice safer sex.”

Potentially, I see a place for myself here, filling an educational gap, getting out much-needed information to people who are neglected by the system. But the question I will probably never be able to answer, at least until I start working is this: is it ENOUGH?

Transgender Kenya

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.

The Only Sex Blog in Kenya

One of things study abroad does quite bluntly is to put your life into perspective: living in another country, playing by other people’s rules, figuring out a system for dealing with a whole new way of life. And studying abroad in Kenya is no picnic.

I’m very happy for my experiences here and the assumptions about poverty, development, and Africa in general that I’m being forced to confront. But there are aspects of my life at home which are very difficult to reconcile with the life I’m living here- and most of them converge around this blog.

A huge part of my identity stems from my sexuality, my sexual expression, and the way I express my academic and personal interest in a sex-positive life. That encompasses a lot. Everything from my relationship, to my blogging, to the way I talk and relate to others. In the US, it’s not unusual for me to interject into a conversation about how mine or another person’s viewpoint reflects gender or sexual privilege. I wave the flag of my queer sexuality proudly as an explanation of how I view the world and the way people interact with one another. I bring up gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues and relate them to my own experiences, hash out political developments and the significance behind court rulings and newspaper articles. And finally, I bring my observations here, for feedback and debate with you.

In Kenya, this part of my life doesn’t exist. I am not queer, I’m not a sex blogger, I’m not…anything. I have been told time and again by my program director, a Nairobi resident of 9 years, that Kenya does not have the climate for a gay rights movement, that this is not my battle to fight, and that it’s best not to make waves. This is hard advice to swallow. Why? Not simply because I love being queer and talking about it, but because this is the silencing I’ve heard so many times before- all through the history of the LGBT movement and into today.

Why should gay marriage be an issue? We need to fix the economy first, win the war first, end poverty and homelessness first. One injustice is not an excuse to ignore another (in fact, this is a true logical fallacy, which I’m going to refer to as the “more pressing issue” fallacy, because I don’t have my high school Honors Argument notes with me in Kenya).
This is a problem for me, as person who is at the crossroads of deciding where her life will go and where her true passions lie. In Kenya, my identity as a queer blog writer is not valued. I dare say it isn’t valued anywhere in Africa. In the US, I have opportunities to express my identity, affirm my loving relationship, and do what I feel I’m actually good at: talk about sex! But is that reason enough to give up on the academic and social endeavors of development work which I have devoted myself to for the last 3 years?

I don’t honestly know. I haven’t made up my mind, and perhaps it’s not my decision to make. But this I do know- if I do work in development work, there are elements of my identity that I know must be part of the conversation:

• Sexual citizenship
If you aren’t familiar with sexual citizenship, there’s a brilliant article here from the now sadly defunct site, Carnal Nation. Sexual citizenship is crucial to the way I conduct my life- it is about acknowledging myself and others as sexual people and refusing to judge others by their sexual decisions, however unusual. It is also about helping to disseminate information, much in the way I do through this blog: in conversation, through workshops, and writing. Even if it is not in person, I want to continue to be a part of the discussion of sexual rights and sexual affirmation.

• My queer identity
I need to have a community around me with whom I can disclose my queerness- it may be a group of three or four fellow aid workers, it may be other LGBT activists in the area I work, or it may be with fellow “othered” populations in the world- people like BDSM enthusiasts, feminists, sex workers, and polyamorous couples who have been excluded from the world of sexual privilege and can welcome another stranger.

• This blog
I make a dedication here and now that as long as I have fingers to type with and something to say about sexuality (and I trust it will be a long time before the world runs out of things for me to comment on), I will continue to write this blog. It is the culmination of my identity as a sex-positive person, and I feel its importance reverberate in my bones. It has grounded me during my time here in Kenya, given me something to retain perspective through, and to help me remember what I value. I don’t want it to fade away.

And for those of you starved for reading material, this paper by my Sex, Gender, and Culture professor Harjant Gill, which talks about the queer diaspora community and his interpretation of their struggles through film, is a great read. Yes, it looks like something you’d get for class, which makes sense, because he’s a PhD student. But it’s also an incredibly well-written insight into the part of the queer community I can’t even touch with my experience; queer diaspora members suffer alienation from their home communities and often the juggling of two separate identities which are very difficult to reconcile with one another. While I can’t speak to those struggles, I feel their relevance to my own life as I navigate my own small version of diaspora here in Kenya. I understand the reverse of these feelings, trying to find my place in a new culture while maintaining both my queerness and my identity as an American. If you have time, I highly recommend you read his article, if not for the parallels to your life, then for an appreciation of what many queer individuals go through trying to find their own space in our community.

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