The pain - and surprising triumphs - of being transgender in Africa: A moving Kenyan story

The lecturer wrote “gender identity disorder” and explained. Everyone turned to the back where I was seated and a roar of laughter shook the class.

SOCIAL attitudes towards sexuality eventually change, albeit slowly. But that progress often needs a few brave men and women who stick their necks out and fight for it in the face of ridicule, ostracism and unrelenting attacks by social media trolls these days. About two years ago, a young Kenyan man began a fight for the right to be a woman, which is how he felt inside. Not even she would have predicted how the battle would end. Here is her incredible story, in her own words:

My name is Audrey Mbugua.

I was born thirty years ago in Kenya and assigned the male gender. After birth, I was named Andrew Mbugua. I was then named Eddy, though the name Eddy was never entered in my official documents.

At the age of nineteen I began being mentally conflicted because of my male gender – I just hated the male gender role and identity, and I didn’t know what to do.

I though it was something everyone went through. I plaited my hair and my parents went berserk. Indeed they flatly refused to pay for my university fees because I was “gay”. So I shaved my hair and thought with time things would clear in my head and the confusion would go. However, the confusion and conflict never went away; it only gripped me further and never let go.

I thought maybe I was gay but then after introspection I knew that was not the case. Then I thought I was losing my mind and I sought help from a medical officer in our university clinic. She reached out for her Bible and started reading some versus. My first break through came in my Sexual and Reproductive Health class during my third year in the university. The lecturer, a Dr. Abok, wrote the words “gender identity disorder” on the white board and explained what it was. Everyone turned at the back of the class where I was seated and a roar of laughter shook the class. The lecturer asked what was happening and they pointed at me saying “that is Barbara” - apparently my classmate used to call me Barbara.

It gets more difficult

I went to the library, internet and my mother’s medical book, and in three months time I had a trove of documents about gender identity disorders. Eventually I decided I would be whom I really was inside.

 My hope was that I would not develop facial hair, and voice would not break further. I didn’t have money for hormone therapy (estrogen shots) and I knew it would be impossible to get them from the university’s clinic. I found a cheaper “treatment” option - contraceptive pills.

I only managed to receive the proper treatment after I got the diagnosis in a government hospital. Though the hospital discontinued my treatment (at the age of 25 years, they asked me to get parental consent), they had treated my bouts of depression and I was back on my two feet. 

In 2008, I graduated from the university and begun looking for a job. It was hard – not because I had poor graduation grades, but because some of my certificates indicated I was male and my name was Andrew Mbugua.

I thought of a plan to get myself out of the rut but the lawyers I met and requested to help change my name said it was impossible. They even doubted those academic testimonials were mine.

In 2010 I wrote to the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC), Kenya’s national examining body, and they told me they could change the names and gender mark in the certificates of people who were undergoing or who had undergone gender change. Additionally, they gave me a list of the documents they needed to effect that change. In August 2012, I visited their offices and handed over my application for change of details (deed poll, affidavit and gazette notice). The officer who received me requested me to prove that the certificate I handed over to her was mine. I told her that was the reason I wanted KNEC to change some details because I was not getting jobs because of the very same issue. She told me they would not change the details because they suspected it wasn’t my certificate. I requested her to consult their legal department and went home.

Running into more walls

After eight days, KNEC informed me that they would not change the names and gender mark in my certificate. I wrote to them in March 2013 (this time I copied the CEO of the KNEC) requesting them to reconsider my application. The officer who had handled my application earlier requested me to resend it (apparently she threw away my application documents). I resent the documents, and they never got back to me. I discussed the matter with a human rights advocate and he wrote to the KNEC. The KNEC wrote back to him and flatly refused to change the name and gender mark in the certificate, claiming it might lead to fraud.

In early May 2013, I filed a court case seeking orders to have the KNEC change the name and for them to remove the gender mark in the certificate. The news of a man who became a woman, and who then sued the government to be re-issued another certificate spread like wild fires. We had anticipated reactions from across society but not at the levels we were witnessing.

There was huge condemnation from a minority of Kenyans but support from Kenyans from all walks. It was tough, especially with a group of hardline Christian lawyers requesting the case to be thrown out because “it would lead to legalisation of homosexuality and lesbianism”.

 Inside transphobia

Additionally, there were all the trolls in social sites trying to bully me and the people who were supporting the transgender cause. It became apparent the KNEC were not taking the case seriously – instead of them responding to our court documents they were responding to media articles. The viciousness of the haters was well demonstrated when someone wrote some profanities and threats on my gate.

Having been in transgender activism for some time, I knew transphobia - and even physical harm of transgender activists - was a reality rather than a mere concern.

I chose to soldier on since it was more honourable to die trying to solve the real challenges of transgender people rather than of hunger, suicide and other leading causes of deaths in the transgender community. I shook off the frustration and prepared myself for the worst.

It didn’t take long for something to happen. The Non-government organization (NGO) Coordination Board refused to register an organisation I founded, Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA). I implored them but they refused. And, this is after they took the equivalent of $350 from me as registration fee. Additionally, the Attorney General and the Kenya’s Ombudsman wrote to me informing me that public hospitals in Kenya were not obligated to provide me sex reassignment surgery.

A betrayal

The final blow was the hostility some mainstream NGOs directed towards me.

Years ago, we had approached these NGOs for legal assistance but they arrogantly spurned the transgender community.

My sense too was that many in the NGOs sector don’t want solutions for what is ailing Africa – they want to enjoy huge salaries and allowances for protecting minorities such as transgender people. I felt a massive weight on my shoulders and I was fast running out of gas.

But then I remembered the days I slept hungry because I was unemployed and my parents no longer supported me because they blamed me for not getting a job. I remembered when I tried to kill myself because I did not see a way out of the woods. I recalled the days I used to hide from my peers because I didn’t want them to see the failure I was. I remembered the nasty comments and humiliation I suffered in boardrooms when I went for job interviews.

These memories and experiences told me there was only one thing I could do - develop a thick skin and a very tough mind. Suddenly the storm blew over and everything calmed down. I begun to see through the fog and fought on. Some of the people who were resisting the work we were doing reached out to us. I saw the levels of confidence in the transgender community rising.

Finally, a victory

In July of 2014, the court ordered the NGO Coordination Board to register our organisation and to pay us the legal fees we used in the case. And on October 7, 2014 the KNEC was ordered to reissue me with a new secondary school certificate with my name Audrey Mbugua Ithibu and with no gender mark.

I knew then that we had threaded the eye of the needle. Two days later, I held that judgment in my hand.

I know some people might appeal the ruling, and they are entitled to, but I remain more confident than ever that we have the capability to overcome any hurdle that lies ahead of us.

I am aware that there are thousands of others out there who are going through hard times because their environments are not sensitive to the challenges transgender people face. I am aware that there are parents who do not know how to handle gender confusion in their children, and wish they could beat these children to bring them back to their senses.

Moving on

There is nothing very complex I can say. Only that I would encourage transgender people and their families to be part of the solution. To seek information from progressive health workers. Parents need to stop demoralising their transgender children. I remember my father at one time asking me; “How can I walk with you? What will I tell people? ” It was the most hurtful thing he ever said to me.

Yet, in some ways, I understand where he was coming from. I don’t know whether I would have handled the matter better if I had been him. He didn’t have any information about gender identity disorders and I never shared with my parents much about what was happening to me.

Also, there must be an expiry date on blaming parents for their mistakes. I have made mistakes. I have regrets about some of the things I did to cope with my problems. I drowned myself in alcohol and smoking. I was hostile to people because I was suspicious and thought they meant me harm. I disrespected myself and self harmed myself with negative PEERS (people who encourage errors, rudeness and stupidity). I became promiscuous and resentful. The transphobes were treating me like garbage and I did it to myself ten times worse. I regret because I know I had a choice of making better decisions and I didn’t. I do not regret being a transgender person – it is not a choice I made. I had no control over it.

Luckily for me, though it seemed like eternity, it was only two years and I managed to salvage much of what I lost. I reconciled with my family and myself. And, this is why I am doing this work. I believe transgender people should not be thrown in the dustbin. There is redemption out there but we have to search for it and hold on to hope when self doubt, transphobia and hatred encounter us. We need to learn to shake off the frustrations that we face and have faith in our abilities. We do not have to be only the poster children of human rights violations in Africa.

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