Transgender people’s struggle for acceptance in Kenya

4 Mar


Today marks the World Transgender Day of Remembrance. It is marked annually on November 20 to commemorate all those killed as a result of transphobia, or the hatred or fear of transgender and gender non-conforming people. It also works to bring attention to the continued violence endured by the transgender community.

Transgender is the term used to refer to persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. It is independent of sexual orientation.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender graphic designer, columnist, and activist to memorialise the murder of transgender Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts. She had suffered multiple stab wounds and later died at the hospital.

In Kenya, the day was marked on Sunday afternoon at a low-key event at The Hilton Nairobi. In attendance were a number of transgender men and women, all part of Transgender Education and Advocacy headed by Audrey Mbugua.

Their theme for this year was ‘Acceptance by Family and Society’. Unlike other transgender meetings in the past, this one marked a milestone in their struggle for understanding and acceptance as some of their family members were in attendance.

The first speaker of the day was Aneiya* who is a 42-year-old transgender man. He began his session with a little exercise by asking those present as family representatives to stand up first and hug their children in show of support. It was a poignant moment for all them and painful for those who are still struggling for acceptance within their families.

“The reason why I wanted you to do this is because, I know for a fact, it’s not easy for us to find family that will stand with you, especially if you are transgender. What I have learned is that most of our friends will always accept us but we still struggle to get family acceptance. We are only asking you to accept us, even if you don’t agree with us on a number of levels; we just want acceptance on a humanity level. When our families who are supposed to love us don’t support us, we end up looking for love somewhere else and this is how we get exploited. It makes us resentful and bitter. We are telling our parents that it is very important for us to be acknowledged and accepted by them because it matters to us.”

Aneiya said the closest he came to talking about the issue was last year when he and his mum watched a TV report on Audrey Mbugua and her struggle as a transwoman. His mum turned to him and said “since I gave birth to you, you have always been like a man, but then I don’t think that you are like Audrey.”

“That was like a stump. I am 42 years old and she will be 71 this year. I felt like I couldn’t bring myself to talk about who I am because I knew that she would never accept me.”

Another transgender man Lance* also talked about his struggle. “The reason I didn’t invite anybody is because they are unable to accept who I am. My parents recognise it but they don’t accept it. I have tried to speak to them about it in vain. The first time I was 14 years old and they thought that I was possessed and they took me for prayers. The second time, I was about 17 years. I was taken to a group of religious leaders who tortured me. For my mother, my being a transgender man is very painful for her and it makes her sad. As for my father, he doesn’t want to hear anything about it.

“It’s sobering that most of us are the faces of other people’s fears. People don’t understand that our lives are as beautiful and as valuable to us as theirs is to them because all of us conform to humanity in different ways. We also have to be careful not to replicate the oppression that we face in the spaces that we are exposed to, to our own spaces. If you are oppressed and looked at as a lesser human being, it’s very difficult to look at yourself as being worth something. We have to realise that we are all different and thus we will all have different views. We need to respect ourselves, and remember that we are and because of this, we should let others be. I think really as transgender, inter-sex and non-conforming gender persons and activists working on sexual orientation and gender identity, we have a responsibility to shift the way we relate with socialisation. That this is not about us wanting to say what is good and what is bad, but allowing each one of us to respect, be responsible and accountability for living our lives fully,” said another member Paul*.

On the other hand, the forum gave the relatives a chance to air out their opinions and reasons why they are struggling to accept their kin.

Agnes Andanyi Akama admitted that as a family, they are still working to come to terms that her sister is now a transgender man. “I think most times when a family member comes to you and tells you that they are transgender, it’s unfair to expect us, your family, to accept you immediately. Since we are going through the shock of trying to understand something we have never even heard of. Our first natural reaction is to rebel or reject you or what you are saying. This is driven by the fear, however irrational, that we are losing you. When my brother George* started transitioning in 2008, I was the only person in my family who tried to understand him. I believe that in every family there is one person who is a prayer champion. In our family, that was me, so when George came and said he was transgender, I blamed myself because I thought this was happening because I didn’t fast or pray enough. Growing up, we all assumed that he was just being a tomboy, but it turned out to be something he had been struggling with for years.

“First of all we didn’t even understand what transgender meant; we all assumed that it was another word for gays. My family felt that I was encouraging his deviant behaviour by supporting him. Slowly he started educating us on what it all meant, what he was going through and what we should expect. If you don’t explain it to us, don’t expect us to accept and understand you. You also have to be patient with us as well.”

Sela Onyango, an aunt to Alice*, a transgender woman, also shared her family experience when Alice told them of her decision to begin her transition. “Most of us assumed that she had joined a bad group and was doing drugs. However when she came to me and explained what was going on with her, I was able to understand it that it is not something that is self imposed but inherent in her. I support her even though the rest of our family is against it. Her parents’ main issue is the embarrassment it has caused them. They brought him up as a boy and now he is a girl. Her mother won’t even walk with her in public. Most of the time when my daughter walks with her in town, people keep wondering ‘Is she a boy or a girl’ and I think why should it matter she is living her life.”

One parent Mama Beatrice*, whose daughter is also transgender said, “As a parent I love my daughter and I support her, however my greatest challenge is the scrutiny of coming out in public. I struggle with this, because I don’t have the confidence to speak about this issue in the limelight. I have also met with other transgender parents who share the same dilemna.”

Audrey’s uncle, Billy Kamau, challenged the Transgender community to come out and sensitise the society on what transgenderism is all about. “I know what people say behind our backs as families with transgender people and most of it is very mean. We have gone through a lot of psychological stress. I understand Audrey because I now know it’s a medical condition. Some people assume that it is Satanism and that she is going against the will of God.

“Through Audrey coming out, it hit me that people are curious but they are afraid to ask. Of course as a family we struggled with accepting Audrey as a woman but it is getting better. We are afraid of the possibility that she might one day wake up and decide that she wants to revert back to being a boy, what will we tell people then? I pray that God will give me the strength to continue accepting Audrey’s change. There is also the issue of battling with the fact that most sexual minorities believe that part of them being different in society is to indulge in self destructive behaviour and that only adds to the stigma that we face as parents.”

From a legal point of view, TEA lawyer, Prof Colbert Ojiambo, talked about the legal strides they had made in the past year and how it all tied up to society being more tolerant towards transgender people.

“Beyond the family level, there is another level of acceptance and that is by society. In our society, there exists what is termed as the norm in culture and attitude that is crystallized in our minds. It is very difficult to change this. Because of this, if you go against what is prescribed as a norm, then you are going to be in problems.

“The society tells us that if you are born male for instance, you already have a preset set of rules you have to live by. The challenges that transpeople are facing in Kenya, whereas there is acceptance, is attitude and culture. The battles we are fighting as TEA is as a result of these two things. Most of the society still has no clue what it means to be a transgender person,” he said.

“There are no policies or people to let them know what it is. Don’t assume that everybody out there knows what transgender is. People fear what they don’t know. The first reaction when we present our papers on transgender, they assume that it is something out of this world. Thus they are denied there rights. We currently have two cases in court over change of names on Audrey’s school certificates and getting the NGO Board of Kenya to register TEA officially. In the last year, we got most of the TEA members passports in their new names. The Higher Education Loans Board also recently issued Audrey with a certificate in her name.”

Professor Ojiambo believes that generally the society is coming to accept that transgender people exist. However he felt that transgender people need to be more bold and come out so that society can see them. He asked them to look at the fight against HIV/Aids in Kenya and how difficult it was in the beginning and how far it has come because of persistence and the right advocacy.

“It will not be possible for society to recognise you, if you don’t recognise yourself. It will not be easy for society to accept you if you don’t accept yourself. Parents need to come out too and stand by their children to help bring in more understanding. Most people assume that there is only one transgender person in Kenya and thus don’t feel the need to change legislation for one person. This is the perception we need to change because to be free, you have to be brave.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved.

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One Response to “Transgender people’s struggle for acceptance in Kenya”


  1. Transgender people’s struggle for acceptance in Kenya | Peterson Ssendi - March 4, 2014

    […] Transgender people’s struggle for acceptance in Kenya – See more at: http://www.the-star…. […]

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