Recently, I remembered helping a friend, Susan Giwa, work on a piece about activism, oppression and separatism amongst women’s groups. I found myself pondering the backlash that could arise as a result of criticising the work of such reactionary enclaves.
Susan, a citizen of Mushin Oloosha is a photo-journalist, transgender rights activist, and a lesbian who suffered the dire consequences of speaking out against a women’s enclave which became oppressive in its outlook at the expense of the women it purported to support by empowering them. It is one thing to be an activist facing oppression at the hands of those she called allies, for instance, having access to complementary therapies was blocked, phone calls that came any time of the day despite her demands that she wanted the calls to stop and the fact that she constantly ran into people from the enclave so much so she felt she had to move.
It is another thing entirely, when an acquaintance of Susan’s called Leslie Aparietema started intruding on Susan’s personal life, one had to wonder, why? What was going on? Was Leslie’s “lesbian purist” stance somehow motivating her reaction to Susan, a lesbian and a mother of four, or because of me, a translesbian? And to think all this was going on within the African Diaspora. How can we offer the people back home, in Africa, any advice on LGBT issues while we fall out with each other as we do?
Susan is one of those gorgeous (au naturelle) women who holds her own well in any company be it academic, debate or in social settings. She prides herself on her abilities. She is also well traveled and now has a reputation as a well respected activist and a photo journalist. However she hadn’t banked on Leslie Aparietema’s intrusive nature. Naively, all Susan saw was another black woman, a sister, a lesbian completely missing the manipulative tendencies of miss gotten allies. Even the jolt of the supremacist enclave that nagged at her could not bolster her awareness to what was going right there in her apartment with this bent ally.
As it turned out, they met some time before at a conference for something or the other during an event in the Cathedral city of Canterbury. They had walked round the city centre from the Canterbury West station through the shopping centre and then onto Westgate and all the way to the university just for something to do after a weekend of hectic LBT performance, creativity and digital technology for women of African descent. Here, Susan felt she was in her element. She gave an inspiring talk whic h was so well received she was approached by a number of organisations to run photography workshops for them. She felt on a roll. The engagements to hand, she thought, were enough to keep her busy for a while. Most of her travel and board were effectively taken care of so she was always good to go.
Meanwhile back home in Manchester after the open microphone event. Susan cooked for Leslie. Leslie couldn’t help turning how she came to be with this woman over in her head: How does she identify? She wondered as she sat there wine in hand as she took Susan’s flat in. She couldn’t believe the fact of Susan’s underwear. “Susan,” she called as if she dearly needed a refill.
Susan came in but noticed immediately that Leslie had hardly drank any of her wine.
“What is it? She asked, “drink, there’s more where that came from, you know?
“Oh, I am a sipper if that’s alright with you?” she said as she took a sip of the wine.
Susan was about to return to the kitchen when Leslie stopped her in her tracks.
“Are those boxers yours?” she asked with a questioning look on her lackluster face. Susan had mistaken it for a smile and smiled in spite of herself. She wasn’t used to someone commenting on what underwear she used but as if she hadn’t noticed, Leslie carried on with her inquiries. “I never pictured you for butch but your boxers… The girlier the better as far as I am concerned,” she continued out of hand.
“Look, I’m cooking… Besides I’ve better things to do instead of talk shop on underwear. I’m don’t do butch/femme identity and I’d rather we didn’t talk about it, if you don’t mind,” she said as she backed away to continue cooking.
Shortly afterward looking somewhat red from the heat or was it a fair helping of wine to smooth her frail edges out? Whatever it was she looked herself most.
Susan had already set the dinning table with a fresh set of white roses in a glass vase. She came in with a plate full of piping rice and fresh fish stew and a mixture of vegetables. Leslie joined her and sat down still holding her glass of wine.
“Would you like a glass of water or a refreshed glass of wine?” asked Susan as Leslie tasted the fish stew.
“Hmm, that’s delicious,” said Leslie. “I didn’t know you could cooked so well. Your mum must have passed it down or something. Oh, I’m fine with a glass of wine
For now, Thanks!”
“Thank you,” said Susan as she went to get her a jug of water and her own food. They sat down to eat. Susan had hoped it would be silent.
“Where are you from?” asked Leslie with a mouth full of food.
“What? What can you mean by that? Where am I from?” the alarm in Susan’s voice spoke tons.
“I couldn’t help noticing that you were not black, black, if you see what I?”
Mean?” said Leslie.
“I’d rather just eat if you don’t mind,” said Susan.
“I’m sorry!” said Leslie, “I didn’t realise it is a touchy subject for you”.
They ate silently but Susan’s mind was anything but silent. What does she thing this is? She questions my gender identity, my sexuality, my race, what underwear I wear and why? What the hell does she think this is? An inquisition?
This is precisely the level of oppression a friend had to face. The situation in the LGBT community is no better for transsexual or transgender people today is like the lives of gay people in the 1950s.
During the sexual revolution equality seemed to be the solution but with transgender people set up as subhuman the revolution has not even begun. Traditional gender make caged birds of us all. A couple sat behind me on a bus. Their conversation, part in Akan -a Ghanaian language and part English. They spoke about the way westerners dress which they didn’t hide, they spoke about me, about the way I was dressed, about how, if I were in Mushin Oloosha, they’d know what to do and shouted, “SHAME!” Their fear speaks through fear which meant shouting. Confidently, I stood up as I arrived at my destination.
After all as a friend said, it is worth remembering that subtle oppressions are still perpetrated, for one, somehow, gender identity is consumed in sexual orientation to maintain financial control which meant that the transgender end up being left out to dry. Faced with a woman like Leslie Aparietema and the couple I met on the bus, I felt Susan’s pain. I’m reminded that relationships are very fragile and even more so if you are transgender, androgynous, non separatist members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual or if you are disposed towards gender fluidity, just so.
Mia Nikasimo © September 2009