The 20 June 2018 at the Alchemist in Nairobi was quite novel. Via the gracious auspices of the SAMOSA Festival - whose mandate is to create awareness and promote interaction with a view to developing a national identity including the ethnic and racial backgrounds of the citizens and residents of Kenya - that evening saw the screening of a documentary film titled ‘Pearl of Africa’. The film is an inspiring documentary movie about Cleopatra Kambugu, a 27 year old Ugandan Transgender Woman. She’s biologically born male, but against all odds has transitioned into the woman she knows she was born to be.

In the film we get to follow her as she questions gender expression and identity, reshapes attitudes and uncovers the realities of a people whose existence has been shrouded in myth and prejudice.

In a feature length documentary we embark on a life changing journey. We follow Cleo who seeks to shine light on the intricate concepts of her gender identity. She rewrites the story of a transgender woman that has for long been shrouded in darkness and misunderstood. Intertwined in this narrative is a touching and inspiring love story, as we follow her journey with the unconditional support of her long-time partner, Nelson Kassaija!

After the screening of the film there was a Q&A session with some panelists from the Kenyan transgender community, including Cleo herself, Seanny Odero , Alesandra Ogeta and Arnest Thiaya from a local human rights group called JINSIANGU. In this session they were able to highlight some of the pertinent issues that face the Kenyan ITGNC community, including challenges, causal factors, prospective solutions and the current state of ITGNC organizing.

JINSIANGU, one of the main organizations in Kenya tackling ITGNC issues is a Kenyan-based Community Based Organization (CBO) established in 2012 for the purpose of increasing safe spaces for and enhancing the wellbeing of Intersex, Transgender and Gender Non – Conforming (ITGNC) persons in Kenya. JINSIANGU is committed to ITGNC-led, pro-humanity and pro-equality organizing. We have been working to create awareness of, visibility and respect for ITGNC people in Kenya through provision of information, and undertaking advocacy and high visibility activities. We have also been working to enable gender minorities/ITGNC to overcome challenges through the provision of psycho-social support and holistic empowerment opportunities, and facilitation of access, for example, to health care. The organization strives to develop spaces and platforms within Kenya in which all citizens are free to determine and express their own gender.

JINSIANGU envisions a Kenya that celebrates and respects diversity, and where all persons have bodily autonomy, freedom, justice and access to fundamental needs. Its mission is to ensure that the lives and well-being of ITGNC persons are enhanced through the establishment of safe spaces, through advocacy and research, through the provision of information, health services, and psycho-social support, and by fostering opportunities for holistic empowerment.

ITGNC persons are regarded as ‘gender minorities’ as distinct from ‘sexual minorities’ such as Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals. The former is a matter of ‘gender identity’ OR whom you subjectively feel you are vis-à-vis gender and gender roles, whereas the latter is a matter of ‘sexual orientation’ OR whom one is attracted to.

Gender Identity - a person's perception of having a particular gender, which may or may not correspond with their birth sex.

Gender Expression - the way in which a person expresses their gender identity, typically through their appearance, dress, and behaviour.

Transgender - denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

Intersex  is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

Gender Non-Conforming - denoting or relating to a person whose behaviour or appearance does not conform to prevailing cultural and social expectations about what is appropriate to their gender.

The issue of gender identity has been prejudiced historically and was thus relegated to the backburner, even amongst LGBTI communities and organising. This was the justification for the establishment of JINSIANGU in 2012, which operates in Kenya.

By most accounts, Kenya is a ‘moderate’ country as compared with other countries in Africa. However, there are a myriad of issues that face ITGNC persons. These have ranged from forced stripping by members of the public and the police; sexual, verbal and physical abuse; denial of basic services in governmental agencies; lack of recognition of their gender identities in government policies or effective changes of name; denial of adequate healthcare including hormonal therapy; denial of educational and identity documents; evictions from places of residence; denial of gainful employment; and lack of access to basic needs for example toilet stalls. All this happens due to an ignorant and sometimes wilfully capricious and biased public, based on their fear of ‘other’ or what they do not understand. Most of these violations go unreported. ITGNC persons often face reverse persecution when they report these incidents and are blamed for having caused the situation.

The protracted impact of the attacks, the feelings of insecurity and unfairness, the isolation, the lack of autonomy and control, the non-acceptance, the pressure to conform, and the need to hide one’s identity and live multiple and inauthentic lives; has led some ITGNC people to substance dependency and a lack of physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. It has also led ITGNC to live on the fringes of society with many people lacking decent work or sources of income. Conversely, it has also led to the building of resilience within the community and the abundance of courage and strength, to forge ahead despite all the challenges.

With the passing of the New Kenyan Constitution in 2010, matters were alleviated somewhat for many minorities. This is principally due to the Bill of Rights in the constitution which seeks to protect the rights of all (some implicitly mentioned, others not). This notwithstanding, there have still been reports of continued violations against ITGNC persons across the country.

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The Courts have been quite revolutionary in awarding damages to ITGNC persons who have litigated before them and been able to prove violations which were committed against them. Governmental policies especially in healthcare, changing of legal name and gender markers, and education have been an obstacle for ITGNC persons. The current policies are vacuous and oblique at best, and at worst, downright harmful and discriminatory towards ITGNC persons. Kenyan law allows one to change their name legally by using a deed poll, but getting the same to be reflected in one’s Identity Card is another matter altogether. The gender marker is much more difficult to alter and few have had success in this regard.

A recent development is that a High Court Judge in April 2017 ordered the Principal Registrar of Persons to alter the names of five transgender persons in their National Identity Cards after the five sued for a compulsion order. The matter had been pending for the last 5 years despite a legal opinion from the Attorney General. The registrar had yet to effect the name changes and had been given 21 days to comply. The judge had ruled that such inaction cannot amount to fair administrative action and that the Registrar had failed in a constitutional mandate. The case had been lodged by the Transgender Education and Advocacy, a fellow Kenyan Trans* organization we collaborate with and some of the complainants in that case are JINSIANGU members. The five petitioners have since been issued with new ID cards reflecting their name changes.

Being ITGNC in Kenya is definitely not easy and is not for the faint-hearted. However, we do see ourselves making positive headway as we push for policy formulation and implementation that would uphold the rights and fundamental freedoms of ITGNC persons as equal citizens of Kenya. We endeavour to continue engaging various stakeholders including State and Non-State actors through dialogue meetings, and civic education and creating awareness about ITGNC persons and issues amongst families of ITGNC persons, local communities and community leaders and the public at large. This shall be geared towards reducing the cases of stigma and discrimination meted out against this community, while heightening their agency over their own lives and aiding them on towards a dignified existence.

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