Browse Tag: transphobia

Reflections from a Woman of Color on the War on Women: “My Sisters-in-Arms, We Are Not United”

Yesterday, I took part in the MA Women United Against the War on Women rally at Boston City Hall. 

Across the US, thousands of men, women and children gathered in front of municipal buildings to voice their outrage at recent state and federal initiatives to propose and/or implement anti-women measures, including the GOP’s attempt to redefine rape, making abortions illegal or virtually inaccessible to low-income women, and removing government mandates for companies to include birth control coverage in the health insurance they offer to employees.

Despite the fact that it took challenging the white women organizers to include more women of color in their speaker lineup — as a little birdie told me — I was honored to be invited to participate, and share the stage with fellow women’s rights activists and feminists, Jaclyn Friedman, Sarah Jackson, @graceishuman, Idalia, and even Norma Swenson, reknowned author of the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I found myself thinking about the concept of “unity,” and the fact that so many women of color, immigrants, transgender women etc are often left out of mainstream women’s movements. But this isn’t news to me, nor to my mentors separated from my experience by four whole decades — mentors who fought so that I would have something different to say to white women “united” for (white) women. It breaks my heart to tell them that we’re still having the same conversations after all their sacrifices.

Hence, for the rally, I decided to have an honest conversation about marginalization with the crowd via a call-and-response speech I partly improvised. Here’s the message I gave, in poem-ish form.

Post-Rally Reflection: To speak from a place of anger doesn’t always mean to speak from a place that is without love. How emotional I became when speaking to the rally yesterday has everything to do with how much I love my comrades of all shades and stripes, fellow women, my sisters-in-arms. And their response to my calling out to them, “My Sisters in Arms” with “We Are Listening” helped me through my anger to the other side… hope.


When I was younger, I dreamed of being part of a revolution.

I imagined it would feel very much like it did in the movies, like Braveheart for instance:

Mel Gibson riding back and forth on horseback, pumping his fist in the air
as he inspired the army before him to FIGHT for their freedom,
we would win this war together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Like every big budget Hollywood movie,
I’d be the handsome, mysterious, emotionally constipated protagonist
who never really wanted to fight,
but live happily ever after in the same village of my beautiful virgin wife-to-be…

until one day,
the fight came to me

and wiped away the smiles of my love, my family, my home.

Only THEN, would I charge forth, my spirit consumed by purposeful rage
and the moment — the moment I’d dreamed of having my entire life — would arrive…

the epic war speech.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Yes, like Braveheart, my heart would be re-forged in stone; I would feel a bond with my comrades united in arms (and social media channels) like I’d never felt before.

And in that moment, against the violins and horns of a moving Hans Zimmer film score,
in the faces of all my sisters standing before me,
I would remember:

the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about me,
the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about them
but about US.

We would stand UNITED against whatever forces dared to oppose us,
and charge forth together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

But the revolution hasn’t quite turned out like the Hollywood movie I’d imagined it would be.
For one, it actually never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be riding a horse.

Mel Gibson turned out to be one of the biggest bigots of all time.
And sexual assault has caused too much pain to the women I love to perpetuate the idea that virginity is a prize to be won,
not when rape is still being used as a mass weapon of war.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

It’s true, the revolution hasn’t quite turned out the way I dreamed it would be,
it never occurred to me
that battle after battle,
rally after rally,
I would find myself standing in front of a sea of white women who don’t look like me,
having to keep reminding them that:

United we stand, Divided we fall.
United we stand, Divided we fall

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I know why we’re here.
There is a war on women happening,
We’re angry — and we’ve had enough.
On that we agree.

But today, I want to make sure we do more than just agree.
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to our subconscious definition of “we”
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to who is missing.

Look around you, my Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I ask you to consider,
is the women’s movement making a stand, or falling into pieces?
Are we uniting through our differences so that we can be stronger?
Or reaching for something way less grand,
with way less hands,
hoping that our “good intentions” will pay off if we just wait a little longer?

Which members of this army — of our family — are missing?

Where are the voices of low income women of color?
Where are the voices of transgender women?
Where is the rest of our family?

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

This women’s movement shouldn’t just voice the concerns of women who are pissed
that they may have to pay for birth control out-of-pocket,
but the concerns of low-income women who would have no access to birth control, period
because they rely completely on government-mandated coverage,
I know you agree, but…

My Sisters-in-Arms, are you listening?
(We Are Listening!)

we cannot profess to be building a movement for ALL women,
we cannot claim that we are UNITED against anything — especially not a war on women
when too many women of color, transgender women, women with disabilities — members of our family, are missing.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

When we picture the women’s movement what faces do we see?
What voices do we hear?
And are they reflected in our choices? In our larger strategy?
Are transgender women a part of this movement?
Have we done our jobs to make that clear?

If so, where is the outrage when transgender women are murdered at an alarming rate in this country?
Where is the feminist takedown when — even in death — the media refers to our trans sisters with male pronouns and the media suggests that their very existence warranted their assault and murder?

Too many transgender women are being left behind.
Too many members of our family are dying.
Too many members of our family are being  tortured and incarcerated, simply for surviving,
Just because we’re too busy “uniting” to look behind.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

You must do better.
We must do better.

If I’ve learned anything about real-life revolutions
it’s that they sometimes can take on the form of the war you’re fighting.
it’s that it matters less what you’re fighting for, but who is fighting with you

The War on Women needs to mean more than reproductive justice for middle class white women.
The War on Women needs to mean more than the debate over abortion and birth control.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism on women of color and our sons.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism, sexism, and homophobia on transgender women of color.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of un-checked privilege and ignorance within  our movement.
The War between Women is real.

And until we can be brave enough to face the truth —
that we have to END the war over who counts as “women” amongst ourselves
we are NOT united.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are NOT united, yet.
But I know we can get there.

I believe in you, my Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I know we can get there.
And so I dare to dream of the day
when I can finally show up to rallies and protests
and not have to say,
“Where are my sisters?”
but “Here are my sisters, united.”

I dare to dream of the day when we can all feel the impact of true sisterhood
and unleash the power of sisters-in-arms, united,
against those who dare to challenge our quest for liberation.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I believe in us.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are not united, now.
Let’s do the work, now
To make sure that one day, we will be.

And when that day comes,

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!)

God help them.

Spectra is an award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks, which publishes global news and opinions about all things gender, media, diversity, and the Diaspora.

She is also the founder of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (, a media advocacy and publishing organization that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender women of color, diaspora, and other racial/ethnic minorities around the world.

Follow her tweets on diversity, movement-building, and love as a revolution on Twitter @spectraspeaks.

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.

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