South Africa, 14 July 2015
A hangout moment with Transgender activists at CFCS. Dalziel Leone, with Immanuela, Apako and Jabu
On Sunday 14 June 2015 we were all set for the journey, the East African Trans group. It was quite a chilly morning and took a lot of effort to be at the pick-up point at 6:30am. I had to be up by 3:00am, thanks to my annoying alarm, as I take two hours to get ready for such a trip. I still got there late.
The Nairobi group was ready, waiting for the bus to fill up. Those from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi were picked up from the airport and taken directly to the venue, Naivasha, Rift Valley region. You could feel the excitement as laughter and giggles filled the air. Everyone wanted to talk to someone, even if it was just a random person passing by the vehicle.
By 12:00pm we are at the venue, checking into our rooms. The environment was serene and supportive. It was actually the best description of a safe space. ‘Free to be me’ could silently be felt among the people who had already arrived. For those coming from oppressive and strict countries, this was a once in a lifetime chance to freely express their gender in whichever way felt comfortable to them and gently emanate who they really were; instead of feeling caged inside by society’s dogma and bigotry.
By 3:00pm the East African Trans and Intersex Baseline Survey convened. A trans and intersex baseline survey had been commissioned to map out the landscape of trans and intersex organizing and funding in the East African region. This included ironing out organizing and funding disparities and informing organizing and funding in the region. During the session individuals were able to freely discuss their experiences and lived realities in the context of their respective countries.
For the first time trans men openly shared their challenges despite it being mentioned that they hardly opened up in such spaces. I wondered what caused this change during the session? Perhaps they were inspired to take up the challenge and prove people wrong; prove that they were able to transcend the societal norm that ‘men do not express their feelings and emotions’. Fears and worries were shared. Joys and sorrows were shared too. Emotions were let out. Even those who were silent when the session began felt safe enough to share their stories with the world. It took a lot of courage as for many this was the first time talking about feeling confined by themselves and what they go through beyond their own closed doors.
In the evening, we were literally behind our closed doors. Trans men gathered in one room, as did trans women. The night was liberating. Topics hardly discussed even among the community were now openly discussed. Information was shared, experiences were passed around, and advice was given. A show and tell session took place. This was a revelation to many, as eyes opened up to the reality of the journey being undertaken towards who they were. As people retired to bed that night, many more were sure of what to do, of who they were and what they wanted.
The following day the second group came in from all over Africa. Although feeling quite exhausted from the East African pre-conference, we immediately commenced the African trans and intersex pre-conference. Despite the fatigue, excitement was in the air. You could see it in everyone’s faces as they waited in anticipation for what the conference would deliver.
For the first time, UHAI made history by bringing a large number of African trans and intersex individuals in one space. The convening preceded the main conference: Changing Faces Changing Spaces (CFCS V). Approximately 50 individuals from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Cote d’vore, Senegal and more, attended the African trans and intersex pre-conference. The ladies showed their beauty while the gents responded admiringly. Every country had a chance to present their experiences and challenges. Tears were shed during the difficult stories just as often as laughter was shared during the wonderful moments and triumphs. You could feel the joy of individuals meeting, getting to know each other, networking and exchanging contacts and information.
The profound awareness that we were not alone seemed to enlighten and brighten the hearts of many. Clearly with various individuals the challenges might be different and the paths taken might have been travelled differently. But one thing stood out, one thing was clear about how our stories were all the same. We were all looking for acceptance and recognition with shreds of love and tenderness. We were striving every day to be who we were, to be the best we could be, hoping that the world would in turn be gentle on us.
Dalziel Leone is a trans man from Nairobi, Kenya. He is a member of Jinsiangu, a recent fellow of an OSEA fellowship and a documentations officer for Iranti.
‘Trans’ is an umbrella term that includes transgender, gender non-conforming and gender queer persons.