Although I was deeply grateful to be part of the Height’s Collective albeit for such a short time during which I became aware of the good work the organisation does in terms of general activism: immigration, prostitution and other areas where the oppression of women persists. One question I really needed to ask you was, “given how you feel now, if I as a transwoman of African origin approached you for your advice, would you fling me to the dogs? It wouldn’t have been a first, according to Leslie Feinberg who likened transphobia to colonialism and illustrated the murders of “two spirited” people while Balboa & co (European colonialists) watched as depicted in a 1594 engraving by Theodor de Bry1.
To think most African’s in the Diaspora, some literate others illiterate, who think we no longer suffer the consequences of colonialism? Racism, transphobia (or what some call gender-phobia2) and sexism (both hetero and homo) to be sure. Decolonialism, which one would be sensible to view as your line of work still leaves a lot of unanswered questions around gender identity and sexual orientation which needs specific attention —the transgender perspective, to be precise which on the whole seem relegated to oblivion post-the-Stonewall- march against a heavy handed police force. Perhaps you are not aware of these pitfalls in your activism but I can’t escape their impacts. Black neo-colonialists pepper the entire black community where gender and sexual intolerance with the consequent gender colonialism is rife. I face them daily through acknowledging their subtle presences but this is not enough.
I was interested to see how the Height’s Collective at Tishken Town might be an outlet for transwomen of African origin which is important from where I stood. Little did I know that the ravings of a transphobe’s held such sway in and around the above mentioned collective until it hit me in the face in the person of Eulij? So traumatic was my experience of this open infraction that I felt a need for the first time to face up to the continuing gender colonialism that certain lesbian activists faced with transsexual women that choose atypical gender expressions harbour. The question that comes to mind is, “can one be assured that no more such eventualities will arise in the future of this ongoing hub of joint activism against the oppression of women?” I cannot confidently say no given your own unquestioning response to Eulij’s transphobic stance. Should it matter that after transition I choose to adopt a sexuality of choice? Why do ‘gender terrorists’3 think that they are well suited to the decolonisation of gender and sexuality by the same token while to all intent and purpose they purported to be fighting the good fight for ALL WOMEN?
As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I cannot pretend that I am confident about the seduction of the old guard’s allies by proxy of activists so rooted in their ways that they miss the part they play in the perpetuation of oppressive ideologies around race, gender identity and sexualities perhaps unknowingly or deliberately. The example of a militant at work can be glimpsed in “Better Than Chocolate,”4 which depicted an angry butch who took it upon herself to gender terrorise a femme pre-op transwoman after a set in which she sang a song about being transgendered and insisted that she would not let the world forget her status as a “transgender person”. After her set, she was in the Ladies with Frances, her “genetic girl” girlfriend who left to pay the bills hot under the collar.
The Butch militant entered shortly afterwards, insults Judith Squires (the transgender woman) by calling her attention as if she were addressing a disgusting pet pig, and then goes on to address her in the following terms: “Sir… Shouldn’t you be in the men’s?” Although Judith tried to defend herself to no avail, at least she tried. The Militant, however, was insufferable. She attacks Judith passive victim with a bag of rubbish which she wielded like a baseball bat deliberately and accurately. As luck would have it, Judith is saved by Margie and her partner, Kim, who forced the Militant to see the error of her ways under Kim’s expert and effectively applied arm lock forcing the militant to retract her insults. In reality this response might only solve a fraction of the problem if it managed to scratch the surface at all since Judith Squires only represents the white, talented, and supported and “passing” side of transsexuality. What about the many transsexual women that did not have all those networks to secure their place in the world? Where do they go?
As a black or African transwoman, I was once asked to carry the mantle for other transwomen or those less willing to be seen to ‘rock the boat’ due to a lack of confidence by a member of my then local Victim Support. I was cautious with good reason. Even there and then before leaving my local housing office with which I was in dispute I saw it all over again. Although my complaint was about a clerical officer I wasn’t expecting both housing manager and an LGBT liaison officer to become just as hostile as the person I’d reported for less. On their way to the toilet they engaged in the usual transphobic banter outside the view of their co-participants with impunity. It didn’t even bother them that the victim support representative was still there in the building. Was I then expected to be overjoyed at such abusive treatment? I wondered when ‘equal opportunities’ became ‘only equal on transphobic terms’ as some public officials tend to deploy the policy depending on each other’s complicity to keep inequality for certain individuals alive!
Seeing similar attitudes on full display with non judgemental activists at the Height’s Collective was not entirely unexpected since human beings of all races, gender identities and sexualities have a common humanness with smidgens of prejudice which seemed to persist but that does not mean it should be allowed to do so unchallenged, does it? In other words, I’m saying that you Nfifi are only human but I do not think a person in your shoes should allow ‘dangerous activism’ as in a transphobe’s view to contaminate the good work you do? I thought I had better tell you this the way I’m doing because it is important that you know my opinion this way if no other avenue of getting it to you is available at present, I feel this will have to do.
A dependence on certain neurotic habits such as hatred oriented gossip, rumour mongering and outright abuse that certain African/black people still use to police themselves are dangerous tools for an activist to employ in the course of their duties. They may even hold extreme views concerning gender and sexuality as credible ways of socialising and freely sharing these with activists in subtle transphobic tittle-tattle which activist’s then reproduce in their work while unknowingly undermining their own effectiveness as social actors. This can be dangerous for ongoing or yet to be acknowledged types of engagement. Perhaps that’s the idea? The question is, how does such intolerance help us in our attempts to at stamping out oppression altogether? It will be sad if we turn out to be saying, if it does not concern us personally, it is alright to flaunt laws put in place to protect every one of us without exclusion.
Personally I am taken by Audre Lorde’s position on most of the questions I have raised here. ‘… Outside of rhetoric and proclamations of solidarity, there is no help, except ourselves’ 5 Asking someone else to do our activism for us is often problematic. These words leave me in no doubt that it is time the African LGB and especially “T” fought its own battle as of old? I’m grateful that the collective upholds the course of women but transgenderism (by which I mean transsexuals, intersexuals and genderqueer women) cannot be effectively supported without a genuine understanding of who we are. Being an activist by itself is not a prerequisite for understanding the transgender community and this more than anything else is the unique expertise I hoped I might have been able to share with other sisters with respect rather than firing off shots about who said what and when. It is a shame that this is all the Collective’s rigidity thinks activism amounts to in their adversarial mindset but it doesn’t have to be. What’s wrong with us working together?
Mia Nikasimo © February 2009