Challenging the Motherland: Transgender and Intersex Activism in Africa

Challenging Gender Binaries in the Motherland: Could Transgender and Intersex Activism Unite Africa’s Movements?

About a year ago, I hosted my first Kitchen Table Conversations podcast on Media, Culture, and Identity. 

The podcast featured four LGBT Africans in the Diaspora, a few of which described themselves as gender non-conforming. Shortly afterwards, I received a really sweet message from someone who had listened to the podcast. It read as follows:

For a long time I have been trying to get involved in the LGBT arena and be a voice to my community but have not been able to find such a space or create one. It takes a lot to actually be in such a position to do so with limited resources.  I listened to the Kitchen Table Conversation with a lot of admiration to the Passionate Voices of My Queer Sisters and felt so empowered. I  am a sincere admirer of all your effort in highlighting these serious issues that affect us as African LGBT Community.  These are the voices I have been waiting to hear for a very long time addressing such issues other than someone else speaking for us. How can I also participate as a transman in diaspora?

I remember feeling touched by the message, but sad, too; it stood out to me that a fellow queer African had waited till the very end of his message to come out to me about being transgender.

I thought to myself, did he really think that I would care if he told me that he was transgender? I’d been working within a small coalition to connect the straight and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer and/or Transgender African diaspora within the US (and to my peers leading the queer African movement at home). My vision of the LGBT African movement certainly included transgender, intersex, and other gender non-conforming Africans. But did everyone else’s?

The delayed disclosure has stayed with me since then; the last thing I want is for Africa to repeat the same mistakes as the LGBT movement in the US and UK, which has historically (both intentionally and unintentionally) excluded transgender, bisexual, and intersex people from gay spaces in order to push forth a “less complicated” agenda i.e. one that doesn’t necessarily aim to challenge society’s oppressive binary perceptions of gender to create more tolerance, but reframe our alignment with the status quo so that we may “fit in.”

Incidentally, when I came out, my parents were surprisingly okay with my dating women; it was the “dressing like a boy” part that made them very uncomfortable. They worried that I’d be drawing too much attention to myself, that I’d stand out and cause unnecessary controversy, and that I’d be saddled with the very complicated question of which “role” to play at my wedding (bride or groom? seriously). Up until then I hadn’t really considered my gender presentation as a deal breaker. I mean, homophobia stems from an intolerance of gay people, right?  But where does the intolerance itself come from?

A quick rehash of comments from Africans about their opinions on gay people suggest quite a bit about their unwavering stance on gender roles:  “Men are not supposed to dress like women…,” “Two people of the same sex should never lie together…,” “If there are two women, which one is the husband?…,” and (my favorite, from Christian extremists), “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” The existence of LGBT Africans ultimately challenges the view that Africans are naturally attracted to people of the opposite sex (i.e. the Homosexuality is UnAfrican mantra). However, this pigeon-holes the entire continent — straight and LGBT Africans alike — into addressing homophobia from just one angle: sexual orientation.

The danger in this approach is that it leaves out transgender people (who have a different gender presentation from that which they were assigned at birth), intersex people (whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female), and a whole slew of people — including straight Africans — who do not conform to traditional gender roles. For instance, at a forum I hosted last year, human rights defender and religious leader, Reverend Kapya Kaoma, shared a heart-breaking story about a woman whose husband was beating her, but — due to her traditional duty to remain a wife — was not permitted to leave, and was unfortunately killed. That woman was his sister. She was not gay.

To me, it seems clear: we should consider thinking about homophobia as a fear of people not conforming to traditional gender roles, and the direct correlation between that fear and the same fear that fuels sexism, and transphobia. By addressing homophobia in this way i.e. through the lens of gender justice, Africa could not only avoid repeating the mistakes of the west re: inclusion of transgender people, but achieve what the west has not been able to (at least, until very recently) — achieve unity across its many disparate social movements. Luckily for this idealist, I don’t have to wish, pray, pine away hoping that someone will take this on; a press release I read yesterday has presented Africa with a very timely gift.

According to Behind the Mask, three African transgender and intersex rights advocacy organizations have formed an alliance to enhance the trans and intersex movement on the continent. They include South African based Gender DynamiX (GDX), the first organization in South Africa (and Africa) to specifically advocate for transgender people, Uganda’s Support Initiative for People with atypical Sexual Development (SIPD) , the only intersex health and rights human rights advocacy organization in the East African region, and Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA), an organization which focuses on black transgender and intersex issues in the rural areas and black townships of South Africa.

In a press statement issued yesterday,  Julius Kaggwa, the SIPD director, states:

“The main focus of this new entity is to support a growing transgender and intersex movement and to engage regionally in advocacy for the human rights of transgender and intersex people.

Following his statement is an overview of the new organization’s strategy:

The vision of Transitioning Africa is to see a strong transgender and intersex movement in sub-Saharan Africa, based on human rights principles, while the mission is to strive for gender recognition within social movements in Africa.

The three organizations’ collective issues of focus, regional positioning, and programmatic expertise not only make for a very powerful collaboration, but a unique opportunity for Africa to test this gender liberation theory. The question remains: will Africans be more willing to address their homophobia if more intentionally framed under the umbrella of gender justice?

When I consider my personal experience with various African movements thus far, I think about how often I’ve been ignored in male-dominated spaces because (even though they’re gay) they’re not used to outspoken women like myself speaking up taking the lead, how rare it is for me to find solidarity with many straight African women because my sexuality and gender presentation are a point of contention due to their cultural beliefs — I can’t think of a more timely and critical undertaking to create a better shared understanding (and respect) of our varied experiences as Africans. It is critical that Africans recognize how gender binaries oppress us all — LGBT or not, transgender or not — so that we can become unified in tackling our oppression(s) from as many angles and frameworks as possible.