Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Interview with Audrey Mbugua Ithibu

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Audrey Mbugua Ithibu, an inspirational woman from Kenya, transgender activist, Secular Humanist, a role model for all African trans sisters, graduate of Maseno University in Medical Biotechnology, a student in Computer Programming and a Post Graduate Student in Advanced Databases in a Kenyan University. Hello Audrey!
Audrey: Hello my dear.
Monika: For many years you have been involved in the work for the Transgender Education and Advocacy. What is the agenda of Transgender Kenya?
Audrey: First, recognition of our chosen names and correct gender in our academic and identification papers.
Second, we want to be able to access medical services relating to gender reassignment in a respectful and sensitive environment.
Third, an end to discrimination and other harmful practices, procedures, and attitudes in Government departments that preclude enjoyment of the rights and fundamental freedoms of transgender people.

Fourth, we are using the media and other platforms to educate Kenyans about Gender Identity Disorders and transsexualism and how transgender people can be accommodated in society and families.
Fifth, we are working to eradicate harmful terminologies and practices by human rights organizations. For example, we are sensitizing society about the negative consequences of lumping transgender people into the gay and lesbian community. We respect the rights of gays and lesbians but we will not accept the practice of combining transsexuals with gays/lesbians and labeling us as the gay community.
Monika: Your case is one of the most important legal battles in the history of the Kenyan transgender community. Unable to win the governmental recognition of your new status as a woman, you took the battle to court. Did the courts manage to issue any favorable decision?
Audrey: Actually, there are two cases. The first one is to have Kenya's national Examination Council change my name and gender marks in those certificates. I have officially changed my name to Audrey Mbugua from Andrew Mbugua (my slave name).
The case is ongoing but there was a problem because the Kenya Christian Lawyers Fellowship wanted to be enjoined in the case so that they would oppose it because they feared "it might open doors for homosexuality and lesbianism". The Christian lawyers' body came to its senses and withdrew. The other case is that the government of Kenya failed to register our organization i.e. Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA). No reason was given to explain why they were not registering the organization.

Monika: In some articles, your battle was portrayed as a fight of a transgender atheist against the stereotypes of the Christian society and country? How fair is this opinion? 
Audrey: I don't think it represented the entire gamut of the conflict between transgender people and a few confused groups. There are millions of Kenyan Christians who respect me and the entire transgender struggle.
However, there is this minority that thinks having a particular faith gives them the power to interfere with the right of transsexuals to access justice. There is nothing like Kenyan Christian society, though there are Christians in Kenya.
Furthermore, I have had people helping transgender people in the name of God's love. I don't argue with them much since I enjoy dumping them in a trash bin in one corner of my mind.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Audrey: Yes. We have managed to break barriers or limits that no one thought transgender people would do on their own. It wasn't just about human rights but a desire to prove ourselves capable and doing the best we could. We were also able to redefine the word 'courage'.
Additionally, the case exposed the State's underbelly... they knew nothing about who and what they were dealing with. But, I normally remind State officials that we are not each other's enemies and we have come to respect one another (some). Through these cases, they were able to learn so much... they can now differentiate between transgender and gay/lesbian.
However, they have come to realize that the only way to hurt me is to refer to me by the male pronoun. So some do it to hurt me... it’s like war games. You win some and lose some. But, I have developed a thicker skin and no amounts of insults can take me down. I am bulletproof.
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in the Kenyan media so far?
Audrey: Ninety percent (90%) have been very balanced. But there are these so-called liberals who started to confuse society talking about gay rights in relation to our cases. We had an intelligent conversation with them and they stopped. There were cyber haters and bullies who vented their frustrations in their lives by calling me names - something we learn in primary school. But, such people only make me more determined. 

Monika: What do you think about the present legal and social situation of transgender women in Kenya?
Audrey: It is really bad. The system has trapped transgender women. Human rights group work is detrimental to transgender women because it objectifies them as sex objects as well as lumping trans women into the gay label. Additionally, some donors fund projects that undermine the rights and integration of transgender women, and any criticism is labeled as homophobia.
The government is not responsive to the needs of transgender people and some of our families are hostile because "we embarrass" them with our gender change. Sexual exploitation is common. Poor and economically disadvantaged trans women are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence. Worst is the fact that all these have seriously compromised our confidence and self-esteem as trans women. But, there is hope things will change. But, changes don't come with flowers.
Monika: And how about other African countries?
Audrey: I have great pity for them and I hope donors will target relevant transgender projects to provide real solutions that will transform the lives of transgender people. The decriminalization of homosexuality will do nothing to alleviate suffering in the transgender community. I am not saying it is not important to other minorities but does not provide any solution to transgender people.
Monika: Is the Kenyan health system ready to provide services to transgender people? 
Audrey: They do offer certain services e.g. diagnosis, psychotherapy, hormone therapy, and castration. However, there are significant issues that need to be addressed. We need gender reassignment surgery, affordable services, a respectful environment, and policies. The Kenya Medical and Practitioners and Dentist Board started developing National Guidelines for the Management of Gender Identity Disorders but the process stalled last year after we gave our contributions. But, we are confident our doctors are capable of offering all these procedures.

Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Audrey: Yes... Prof. Lynn Conway in the USA. We used to email one another once in a while. But, I was there alone. The saddest part of this was that I made mistakes. There is a time I was promiscuous - I am not embarrassed to admit I made mistakes - I just felt like self-destructing and I went ahead and did it. Also, I used to drink and smoke a lot.
But I quit that immoral life... if I couldn't have a role model then I could be someone's else role model. I owe that to the younger transgender community. And I guess we trans community have failed; we do not do a great job of taking care of our younger trans community. As a result, they end up being preyed on by wolves and they end up losing their lives due to HIV/AIDS, suicides, and violence.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Audrey: Fear, ridicule, and errors in judgment. When I felt lonely, unloved, and wanted to fit in I made mistakes. Looking back I see a confused and bitter girl... I think I could have handled the matter differently... with regard to some issues.
The only thing I am proud of is that I rediscovered myself before I made the mistake of deferring my studies in the university... but I should have gotten a better grade. I wasted time and effort thinking about nonsense (someone to love me i.e. read someone to validate me as a woman) but I came to my senses and discovered that I am special and don't need love from anyone to be a woman.
Another challenge is societal stereotypes... even among liberals and most human rights organizations including SOME gay and lesbian organizations. Some of these are the most bigoted people you will ever meet. If they realize you are transgender then they cut you short and demand that you shrink into a corner and be f***ed by men in the a**. They look at a trans woman and they think our role is to be used by men as sex toys.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Audrey: I do engage in politics... but at the periphery. I am normally scared of most Kenyans when it comes to politics because most confirm to me they don't have anything between their ears the moment they open their mouths to speak about "other tribes".
That is why every time they go to a polling station they are like "ooh this person is from my tribe so I will vote for them" or "this candidate is rich so I will vote for them" and the worst "oooh this guy has tempers... he is the right person to protect us from other tribes".
I am thinking of forming a political party to be known as the Party of Common Sense (POCS). I believe what Kenya and Africa need in a hurry is common sense because we are destroying the fundamental pillars of our societies.
I think transgender women can make a difference in politics... we form the cream of the society with regard to intelligence and compassion. And most of all, we have had to develop a lot of tenacity and propensity for hard work to survive during our bleak existence.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Audrey: Wow... that is one area I hate to love. My love life before my transition was "wanting"... I was awkward. It was hard to connect with girls... there is this girl that I loved but it was hard talking to her because I would go blank. My heart would beat so hard she would tell my cousin (they were best of friends).
Then I started my transition and I made the mistake of abiding by the social expectation of a woman should date a man. I gave it a shot but it was nonsense. I went back to dating women... but in 2013 I took an oath of chastity to protect the integrity of my body. At times it’s hard to say no but it has been manageable.
There are women that I meet and am like wow. I fall in love easily but I have come to appreciate that there is this rough edge to love. But, I consider myself heterosexual/straight in a special way. I am not lesbian, gay and neither am I bisexual.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Audrey: Yes... in fact my sister was really encouraging me to do it. It's a bit early to dismiss it but I am yet to muster enough courage to dig around in that graveyard in my mind. There are things I did that I am ashamed of e.g. the issue of promiscuity and hopping from one bar to another like a teenager. But, if the memoir bug catches me then I will have no option but to write it.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Audrey: No... I want to focus on the name and gender recognition and of course economic empowerment of transgender women in Kenya. There is a lot of poverty and misery. Hundreds of little humiliations among the transgender people because most of us are poor, illiterate and we cannot afford rent or food.
It hurts to know that most transgender people in Kenya have to be used sexually to get US$2 for a meal and they are at it again for money for lodging. It hurts and at times I end up crying alone in the house. Only fools can romanticize poverty... sleeping under a tree in the park is not fun.
So far our organization has been able to sponsor 4 transgender people to schools to learn skills for them to engage in a legitimate source of livelihood. It’s hard to convince donors that this is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Audrey: First, they need to accept themselves. There is nothing to be ashamed of... mental disorders are part of the human race.
Second, I would encourage them to seek assistance from a mental health care provider... don't listen to these groups that keep arguing about (de)pathologization of gender dysphoria/gender identity disorders.
Third, seek help from your family and avoid negative peers (people who encourage errors rudeness, and stupidity).
Fourth, get the education... and if possible lots of education and have confidence. If you feel you don't have any faith or energy to hold on then ask for some from your God or from your source of motivation and encouragement.
Finally, if you have fallen into immoral behavior then change and forgive yourself. Everyone deserves a second and third chance. Even a fourth chance. And assist another person with gender dysphoria. Don't be ashamed to be seen or walking with a fellow trans person... if she can't "blend" and people keep staring then learn to ignore the stares. It is easier than we think.
Monika: Audrey, thank you for the interview!
Audrey: Thank you for having me. Well done and many thanks.

All the photos: courtesy of Audrey Mbugua Ithibu.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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