Transgender and gender non-conforming people realise that progress has been made. As their visibility grows, the world becomes more tolerant. But in Zambia their identity remains a crime.
According to the Oxford Dictionary a gender non-conforming person is one whose behaviour or appearance does not conform to prevailing cultural and social expectations regarding what is considered appropriate to their gender. A transgender individual’s sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with the sex assigned at birth. Both gender non-conforming and transgender persons can be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. In most cases, these persons say they have always felt different and uncomfortable in the gender assigned to them at birth. It is often difficult for them to come out to their families and friends about their gender identity due to fear of stigma and discrimination.
Being transgender or gender non-conforming comes with a lot of challenges. Even something as normal as the biological need to use a public restroom becomes an issue. Especially in countries like Zambia where transgenderism is not legally recognised. Gender non-conforming persons are constantly questioned about their expression: “What are you? Are you a boy or a girl?” In other instances people stare, whisper, point. To best understand some of the dynamics around transgenderism and gender non-conformism, three respondents were interviewed.
“I discovered about my gender discomfort at the age of nine. Ever since, I have had difficulties conforming to being either male or female, even though I was assigned female at birth,” said Chisala Musonda, a human rights defender and a footballer. Musonda prefers to be addressed as they, them, he or by their name. When they were asked about gender non-conforming misconceptions they would like to dispel, Musonda said: “How people say or think that gender non-conforming people are undecided about what gender they are.”
“With my gender non-conformity I have experienced a lot of discrimination. One incident that I remember was when I was prevented to enter church because of the way I looked and dressed,” said Musonda.
Another self-identifying transgender woman said: “My name is Giselle and I was assigned male at birth. I realised that I was transgender last year.” Giselle Tonga is a young and ambitious transgender woman whose passion is writing. When asked what she would like to change about what people think of transgender women, she said: “People think being transgender is a phase or a trend that will fade. They think we transition to get the attention of men or for money.”
Tonga has even faced discrimination and harassment from family: “One aunty of mine burnt my wigs and clothes. Another threatened to burn my boobs (whatever that means). And three of my uncles banned me from their houses and from mingling with their kids.”
Jane Kalaba is a transgender woman and activist based in Lusaka. The realization of her identity goes as far back as her memory allows. “I never felt anything else other than feminine. That’s who I was. However, when you’re young you don’t have the words to describe who you are. I only became conscious of how different I was when the adults around me started to point it out. They always asked why, as a little boy, I was as soft as a girl and spoke and acted like a girl – as they described it. For me this wasn’t a fair question. As a child because I didn’t know much.”
Kalaba identifies as a queer transgender woman. When asked about misconceptions she would like to change she says, “The biggest misconception I’d like to change is that we are ‘different’. We aren’t different we’re human too. And the sooner this misconception changes the better life will be for most trans people around the world.”
Musonda’s sentiment was: “Because we are young, it doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. So never give up no matter what. Keep fighting for you and those you love. Hope is what keeps us alive.”
While Tonga’s message to young trans girls was, “Keep moving. If you trip and fall, get back up. Be willing to be the only one to see your authenticity. Define and validate yourself, or else you will be defined by what society fantasizes you to be. Be patient, it will all be worth it in the end.”
Kalaba says she has faced discrimination in all spheres of life and it’s largely due the world’s phobia of trans bodies. “It others us as ‘different’ which makes us vulnerable to a lot. My worst fear is that I’ll die in this world and it won’t be at my own will. Living, sleeping and waking up with that fear has fortunately pushed me as a trans person to do better for myself in making sure I provide myself the safety tools I need to survive the world… This unfortunately isn’t the reality for most trans persons.”
“My message of hope to the trans community in a country like Zambia is that the day will come when we can be heard and properly fight for our right to our existence. But until then, we have ourselves to ensure everyday faith gets us to that point,” said Kalaba.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people identify as male, female or neither. Sometimes they identify with what is outside the norm of how gender identity and roles have been defined by society. Despite the growing visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people the freedom to express their identify remains contested in Zambia.
In this country many members of the transgender and gender non-conforming community continue to accept and embrace their identities. Even under constant threat. They continue to mobilise themselves and show strength by speaking out against discrimination and by sensitising society.