50.50: Opinion

Stop imposing your imperialist Western transphobia on my people

Societies across the world acknowledged and celebrated gender-diverse communities – until the British arrived to impose their Victorian values

Arya Karijo
31 March 2021, 12.00am
Trans rights activists at a protest on 6 March 2021
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Ibrahim Oner/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

There is something that people in the UK spreading fear of trans people need to understand. I think they don’t really get what they’re doing, or the grim colonial history they are choosing to be part of.

I am what Kenyans call a mixed-tribe person. One side of my family is Meru, the other is Kalenjin, specifically Kipsigis. My great-grandmother on the Meru side was Maasai.

Usually, this would be seen as a rich heritage. But I do not speak any of the associated languages and only now am I exploring what the cultures of ‘my people’ were, and what elements remain today.

This research has led to many interesting discoveries. It turns out that the very concept of tribes was created through the lens of colonialism, based on how the coloniser saw us, and perpetuated by how colonial schools taught my ancestors to view themselves.

This codified organisation of different tribes made it easier for the colonial masters to rule us – and in 2021, they allow Kenya’s politicians to mobilise votes, by making people with a totally different heritage feel like they are part of the same group.

This is true for almost everyone who has grown up in a former colony of the British empire. None of us remembers who we were pre-Christianity and pre-colonisation. We are all pulling at little pieces of the past that we call African culture, and trying to sew together a heritage.

For me, this search is more than an anthropological interest. It’s because I am a transgender person. And in my country, transgender people like me are referred to as a foreign concept, as “unAfrican”. Some claim that we are a bad omen. Others say that we have no place in the Christian ‘Kingdom of God’.

I am not angry at the British empire for robbing me of my tribal past, or for inventing those ‘tribes’ in the first place. I could deal with that by inventing a new future, imagining Kenya as my Wakanda.

I am not angry that Christianity has completely erased whatever divine beings my people believed in.

But I am livid.

I’m livid that, almost 60 years after Kenya’s so-called ‘independence’, my trans siblings and I across Africa and Asia have to justify our existence without being able to refer to our cultural past before colonialism. Our history has been erased.

I am livid that my coloniser disciplined the people around me into believing that Victorian patriarchy was their own culture, when all my research has taught me how much that is a lie.

I am livid because I now know that my Meru ancestors had religious leaders called the mûgwe, who were assigned male at birth, wore their hair like the women in the community and gave blessings with their left hand (a symbol of the feminine). My school taught me that the mûgwe were ‘Medicine Men’. Now I understand that they were not ‘men’. My traditional community accepted gender diversity.

I am livid because Kenyan Christians quote the coloniser’s Bible as evidence that my existence is “not African”.

And I am livid that transphobes in the West continue to erase my people’s history and culture.

Erasing trans people from history

It is tempting to claim that I am just an angry 40-year-old – trying to blame my own underachievement on a coloniser. I was the first to self-accuse. So I went on a quest to talk to other transgender people from other places that share Kenya’s colonial past.

Nayyab Ali and Saro Imran told me how they strain to explain to their fellow Pakistanis that their gender-diverse community, the Khawaja Sira, has existed for thousands of years, but was blacklisted by Britain’s Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. It’s not trans people who came from the West, but transphobia.

Yahyia Al-Zindani fled his home in Yemen because Houthi militia believe our kind are a foreign concept, and they want to kill him. But the transphobia doesn’t come from Islam: the Koran accepts gender diversity, calling my people ‘the Mukhanat’.

I am livid that transphobes in the West continue to erase my people’s history and culture

Transgender women in Kuwait have all but resigned themselves to a punitive law against “imitating the other gender” that keeps them imprisoned on the whims of policemen. But assumptions about who wears what clothes are based on Western sartorial ideas – ideas that were often enforced by colonial missionaries.

Trans people have always existed, everywhere. We were mudoko dako for the Lango in Uganda, yan daudu for the Hausa in Nigeria. We were priestesses and priests for the Bunyoro in Uganda, a third gender for the Teso in Kenya. We were eunuchs with powerful court positions in the Dahomey kingdom in Benin, and concubines in the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana. Native Americans thought of us as “two-spirit” people. Records of our existence go back centuries in Afghanistan, and many other countries.

And in all these places, it was British colonial rulers who criminalised us. The UK’s Victorian ancestors had to invent a particular version of masculinity in order to brutalise us, and in doing so they violently erased our gender diversity – as well as their own.

Therefore we can’t help but notice when we see a moral panic about our people take hold in the UK once again.

The UK still has vast cultural power in the world, particularly over its former colonies. When the British media obsesses over trans people, when British politicians question our rights, when prominent authors try to discipline the gender-diverse community, they perpetuate this colonial cruelty against us. They fan the flames in our countries too. And when British trans-exclusionary feminists join in with this imperialist moral panic, it’s hard not to cry.

Our existence is our truth. For centuries, your people have tried to erase us. But we won’t let you.

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