20 November is Transgender Day of Remembrance (#transdayofremembrance /#TDOR). Skye Skyetshooki’s work focuses on homosexuality on the continent of Africa, on issues affecting LGBTI asylum seekers, refugees and women. In this post she reflects on what the day means to her.
All images are self-depicting works by gender-queer artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami.
I had never heard of the term ‘transgender’, or seen a ‘transgendered’ person, until the day I arrived in the UK in 2001. The word, Western in meaning and description, simply did not exist in my vocabulary. While I had crossed paths with several persons who self-identified as ‘transgender’, the word was always articulated in different ways and in vernacular languages.
I’ll come back to this issue of language, but first, some facts: In Africa not only are same sex practices heavily frowned upon but transgender persons suffer worse treatment. They are silenced, ostracised, isolated, denied healthcare, denied housing, raped, harassed, arrested, and discriminated against in workplaces. There is no protection provided to transgender people, and their human rights are violated from every angle. The violence is harrowing.
On Transgender Day Of Remembrance, not only do I celebrate those that continue the battle for visibility but I also commemorate and mourn those that have been lost due to this hateful war against trans-people, a war against different gendered ways of living, a war against same-sex practices.
However, it’s important to do more than just mourn and remember. I continue to educate myself about the issues that impact on transgender people. I continue to explore and expose the extent to which colonialism has played a role in eradicating historical African traditions and ‘other’ gendered ways of being. I am indignant that in Africa, the continent of my birth, it is often forgotten that these different ways of being and living have existed for centuries. It is time WE use our visibility and knowledge of our history to challenge the misconceptions that are imposed on us.
As a queer African woman, and as a self-identifying ‘ancestral wife’, my interest in female masculinity, sexuality, and pre-colonialist gender in African societies, continues to unearth a diversity of identities that eschew gender binaries. This should serve as a powerful reminder to African leaders (who vehemently insist that homosexuality is a Western perversion) that prejudice about trans-people and homosexual expressions is not based in African culture. In fact, documents, as well as African oral history, show that missionaries and colonial administrations introduced the idea of homophobia to African societies.
I want to end this piece by coming back to language, because African languages have several ways to describe trans-identities and transgendered people. Some of these terms are descriptive whilst others are more heavily laden with values. Words such as Wobo or asbtime (Ethipioa), or words describing same-sex practices such as ngochani (Zimbabwe), koetsire or sorgus (Khoikhoi) or motsoalle in some cultures, are evidence of the myth of gender normativity in Africa.
This is the evidence we speak everyday, and on this TDOR, and on other days to come, and with these words I urge feminists, activists, Africans (and non-Africans, regardless of gender or sexuality) to continue raising awareness and visibility of transgender and same-sex relations in African societies.
Skye Skyetshooki (www.skyetshookii.com)
In April 2014, Skye participated in a Commonwealth Writers Conversation, ‘Choices and Compromises’.Go Back To The Blog