Previously published on Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women.
Two years ago, when we were planning to organize the first ever Adventures Live festival, we had invited about 7 feminists and activists from different African countries to be speakers at the event. This included an African trans woman who was invited as a speaker for one of our panel conversations. I had helped to organize travel logistics and as such had been in communication with this speaker. We communicated via email and whatsapp and I built a cordial working relationship with her. I was inspired by her work as a writer and activist and I hoped to one day be as accomplished as her.
As the date for the festival drew near and last-minute preparations were being made, I overheard one of the other organizers say that they hoped this particular speaker would not face any difficulties at the airports she was travelling through. For the first time in my life, the reality of some of the subtle kinds of targeted violence trans women experience became something I could personally connect with. Going through airport security in and of itself is a nerve-racking experience for anyone. Not to mention the kind of dehumanizing treatment others experience on account of their race, gender identity/presentation, religion and even country of origin. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear and concern for her safety. I was anxious about all the things that could go wrong and I prayed earnestly that she would be safe and well.
Thankfully, she arrived for the festival in good health and marvellous spirits and she was a delight. She was personable, knowledgeable and deeply insightful. I was truly grateful to experience the gift of her presence.
I share this story to remind us of the inherent humanity of trans women – a humanity that we all share as people regardless of our gender identity and sexual orientation. The world unjustly characterizes trans women as malevolent. The media villainizes and falsely paints trans women as usurpers stealing the essence and rights of cis women. But not enough stories are told about the shared humanity we have in common. We have dreams and aspirations. We want access to basic things in life like safe housing, affirming healthcare, paid employment, legal protection etc. We desire love and community. We hope to feel secure in who we are. We want to have families that love us and care for us, and be surrounded by friends and lovers that we can share our lives with. We fight for the things that matter to us. We need our identity to be respected. We want to be able to be our freest and most authentic selves. We are capable of immense kindness and compassion beyond imagination.
Yet in spite of all this, we are made vulnerable in the face of patriarchy. Cis women, trans women and gender non-conforming individuals are otherized and consistently violated by patriarchy. We are denied agency over our lives. We are denied bodily autonomy. We are stripped of our humanity. We are constructed as subordinate beings and exploited for our labour and resources. Worst of all, our lives and existence are framed as in direct opposition to one another. One has to die for the other to live. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Patriarchy poses trans women as dangerous when the real threat is patriarchy itself. Patriarchy convinces us that trans women are impostors. But patriarchy is the real trickster. Patriarchy sets (contradictory) rules for performing womanhood – be feminine, be graceful, be gentle, be sexy but not too sexy, look beautiful but don’t be aware of your own beauty, work hard and financially support your household but let a man provide for you. Patriarchy says, “follow these rules and you will be safe”. So we strive to follow these rules but yet we cannot escape gendered (patriarchal) violence. It finds us everywhere.
Patriarchy forces us into subjugation and hands us a single lifeline that we are all supposed to fight for. We fight for this lifeline, and sometimes in the process we sacrifice the most vulnerable among us – lesbian women, trans women, disabled women, sex workers, bisexual women, poor women, incarcerated women, intersex women. This is the strategy of patriarchy. It seeks to conquer us by dividing us. Therefore, we cannot gain freedom from patriarchy by forsaking our sisters and siblings. We have nothing to benefit from the oppression of those who desire the right to self-determination and a fulfilling existence.
If you take nothing away from this piece, know this; part of our liberation hinges on recognizing who the real enemy is. It is not trans women.
I leave you with a quote by Audre Lorde, “Whatever power we have that we don’t use will become an instrument against us, the question of differences is a perfect example. If we do not learn to use our differences constructively they will continue to be used against us as causes for war. We must turn this around, not by eliminating difference or pretending it doesn’t exist, but examining how it may be used and recognized.”