Transgender people are some of the most invisible in Zimbabwe, where rigid gender stereotyping continues to stifle freedoms. Many are forced to hide their identities and live on the margins of their communities or risk being vilified as immoral and unchristian by the conservative majority.
But how best can we describe what being transgender is?
There’s a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. As many would know, we’ve got the LGBTIQ+ community. The L, G and B have to do with sexual orientation; it has everything to do with absolute attraction from one person to another. Albeit, the “T” and “I” have more to do with one’s identity and the body that you’re in at a particular point in time.
There’s incongruence between the sex assigned at birth and your side of being who you are. Feeling who you are can be whether you affirm yourself as a man or as a woman. So, your gender identity truly determines which pronoun you use as you navigate spaces in society and pronouns will be he/she/they. In precis, that’s what being a transgender person is: it’s a state of who you are in your mind and how then that translates to how you express yourself and how you feel.
How do you navigate around the horrific things (hate speech and name-calling) that happen or is directed to Trans* people in Zimbabwe?
Firstly, I’ll generalise before I personalise. It’s very much difficult to navigate around the horrific things that are said and done to Trans* people in Zimbabwe’s hostile environment. There’s a lot more to the things that happen We’re talking about access to health care services where Trans people face stigma and discrimination when they walk into a health facility. Currently, we do not have any laws that have been put up specifically for Trans people, but they are always put in the same law box as homosexuals. The law is very harsh to such people; it’s not easy to fully express yourself as Trans. You find that some even end up dropping out of schools as the environment is not very enabling to live their lives and reach their full potential.
There’s a lot more work that still needs to be done around Trans visibility hence you find that for one to navigate in a country where there is little information on trans identities can be very difficult, especially with Zimbabwe increasingly becoming a Christian nation. If society wants to refer anything patterning to the LGBTIQ+ community, they have to now use the Bible which becomes difficult to even have such conversations with people who deem themselves to be Christian and consider being Trans “unholy”.
Personally, I feel like one thing that helps Trans* people a lot is finding similar people that you sort of identifying with. Even though there are parts of the country where these support systems may not exist – chiefly in rural Zimbabwe – finding a general support system is what helps me get through it the most. It has proven to help me and the few Trans* people that I know. For the most part, some people have to live in secret especially when it comes to their gender expression, they hide who they are for fear of persecution, oppression and microaggressions. Even so, they end up expressing themselves in a way that does not quite speak to who they are.
There’s a lot of hiding, there’s a lot of going back in the closet that happens when they are in the world. The only time they get to fully express themselves is when they are in the spaces where they are with the other Trans* people. When they go back into the world, they go back to what is deemed to be acceptable and “normal” by society.
There’s a lot of mental health struggle there as well. For those already undergoing the medical transitioning, it’s hard to just access even the basic services as their gender markers on their IDs do not match with who they are, and those that do not pass (Trans* people that do not fit the stereotypical binary look of the gender that you identify with). Some are even purposefully misgendered by the public once they notice they are Trans*. It hurts me to know that other people like me are going through such things and the law doesn’t recognise or protect them.
What are the major problems that Trans* people have been facing in Zimbabwe?
For one, there are people in the rural areas who are still struggling to unpack just the basic knowledge or the language of gender identity and gender expression. Just imagine going to your relatives in the rural areas and having to explain to them you’re Trans*. The first thing that they are going to ask is “what’s that?” and that’s the first problem we find ourselves in. We haven’t taken full ownership of our own language and debunk our own identity in our own language. You’ll not find the word transgender in any of the languages in Zimbabwe; hence the first major problem is language and access to knowledge.
The second problem would be legal recognition as a Trans* individual. Without legal recognition, it’s difficult for one to get employed. For instance, the documents are saying Rudo and the minute you walk in for the interview they realise Rudo is not Rudo but, Rudo is Peter. I mean, what are the chances of that individual getting a job? This has been increasing the unemployment rate among the Trans* community because of their ID and has been leading to a lot of them committing crimes and being drug abusers. Some even find themselves in the hands of the law enforcers. The problem then comes when they are now being put in custody. In which prisons are these individuals put in, and what kind of treatment are these individuals getting? A lot of injustice is done to these Trans individuals as most of our law enforcers have little or knowledge about Trans* identities…[To be continued]