Gender identity in Kenya: The other sex | Globalization | DW | 13.09.2013
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Gender identity in Kenya: The other sex

Kenya's transgendered struggle with discrimination and an exclusionary legal system. Audrey Mbugua, one of the first transgendered people to publicly declare her identity, advocates for trans rights - including her own.

If you met Audrey Mbugua (picture above) on the streets, you might think she has her own band. Far from it: Audrey is an aspiring biomedical scientist, currently searching for Master's scholarships. She said she's always been fascinated with viruses.

"Look at the HIV, it is one complex retro-virus. Its genetic material codes for a paltry nine proteins, yet we have spent millions of dollars trying to tame it," Audrey said. "They are resilient and versatile, much better than humans in my opinion."

In 2007, Audrey had gotten her degree in biomedical sciences from Maseno University. Fresh out of campus, she was a few weeks into her first job with an agricultural research institute.

One morning, like she had since the beginning of June that year, she got up early and prepared for work, straightened her long hair and brushed her teeth, put on her slacks and boots, and headed off to work. Little did she know that this would turn out to be one of the darkest days of her life.

When she got to the office, she heard that her colleagues were blaming her for the failed wheat harvest they had been expecting. "They implied that I was some sort of abomination or a jinn [an evil spirit] and because of what I was, and having associated with me, their crops had failed," Audrey said with a weak smile, trying to hide the pain in her voice.

Audrey's sex on her birth certificate is male, but she always had an internal sense of being female - thus, she identifies as a trans-woman, and has sought sex change therapy for years. But she's come up against considerable resistance, not only from her family and colleagues, also from society at large and a state system that does not accommodate transgender people.

Audrey's story

"I was born completely male and was brought up as such, but I was never comfortable in my own skin; my mind and everything else within me knew that I was female," Audrey said.

When in college in 2004, she started plaiting her hair, her father was furious. After she started transitioning, most of her family and relatives stopped speaking to her, and her friends did not want to be associated with her.

For years she was the butt of jokes because her fellow students could not understand why she chose to live the way she did. "At the end of my third year in campus, I was really depressed and stressed out and I wanted to quit - but if I did then, it would have meant that all my hard work had been for nothing, and I couldn't have that."

By the time Audrey was graduating, she was battling depression and had to get some help. A psychiatrist gave her some medication for her depression. "Those doctors saved my life," she said. The psychiatrist figured it was a case of gender identity, and she was referred to Kenyatta hospital for sex change therapy. But that was just the beginning of a long journey.

'Moving goal posts'

In March 2009 after a series of evaluations from a number of doctors, Audrey was supposed to get sex reassignment surgery. On the day of her surgery, the director of the Kenyatta National Hospital said he had received a call from the Kenyan health minister to hold off.

"The director then set up a committee of doctors to review my case but I think it was just a façade - the whole system kept moving goal posts," Audrey said. "They wanted me to bring in my parents to give their consent, which is ridiculous because I am an adult and I am not mentally incapacitated."

Jomo Kenyatta Center and Kenyan parliament in Nairobi

The Kenyan parliament in Nairobi has the power to reform laws to better include transgender people

After a number of fruitless visits to the director of medical services, Audrey decided to write a letter to the health minister in 2011. "Surprisingly, I got a call from Kenyatta National Hospital. The minister had forwarded my matter to Kenyatta Hospital and told them to look into it," Audrey said.

Two weeks later, she was told the doctors were not ready. "I discovered it was a lost cause when [the hospital's] legal officer told me she had to consult with the attorney general on the legal framework on sex change in Kenya."

Transgender advocacy

In December 2008, Audrey co-founded the organization Transgender Education and Advocacy to address the gross human rights violations and ignorance in the Kenyan community of facts concerning transsexualism.

For example, when a transgender man was assaulted at a bar in downtown Nairobi, the group helped prosecute the attacker. "Taking Alex's attacker to court was important for us because most times transsexuals will not report such matters to the police for fear of repercussions," Audrey said.

Catherine Syengo Mutisya is a consultant psychiatrist who has been involved in the management of two transsexual/transgender people in Kenya. Syengo believes that in Kenya, most people with gender identity disorder do not disclose it, but they are struggling with it. This is because they are afraid of the stigma associated with it, and most of them lack proper guidelines on identifying the condition and its management.

"The designation of gender identity disorders as mental disorders is not a license for stigmatization, or for the deprivation of gender patients' civil rights," Syengo said.

In addition to stigma, discrimination and violence, transgender people must also face legal problems - for example, difficulties in changing their names, which can cause multiple problems like being denied access to medical services.

Audrey believes that there is need for transsexual persons to engage with the ongoing processes of legal and policy reforms in Kenya - be it in the health sector, citizenship and education sectors.

"There are no magical fixes for our problems and we cannot afford any level of laxity," Audrey said. "We have made fundamental changes in certain sectors and more is in the conveyor belt - but we should not expect anything short of a street fight."

Brenda Okoth

Okoth has a degree in communication and media technology from Maseno University

This report is a condensed version of Brenda Okoth's entry for the German Development Media Awards. Okoth's three-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) on Kenyan transgender society was one of four finalists in the Africa category.

Okoth is the deputy features editor at Radio Africa (The Star), where she manages the writing staff and commissions and writes her own articles.

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