Trans women speak on Western influence and being transgender in Nigeria
International Women’s Day passed in Nigeria with thousands of people going online to share and post messages with the hashtag #IWD2019 and politicians and companies making statements celebrating past female leaders that instigated change in this country.
But a certain section of women remains uncelebrated.
Nigeria has a small community of transgender women. These women, in a lot of instances, prefer to remain anonymous because of negative perceptions of transgender people.
According to Amnesty International, transgender women are 1.6 times more likely to experience physical violence, 1.6 times more likely to experience sexual violence, and 1.4 times more likely to experience hate violence in public places. The Nigerian public has begun a crusade against violence against women but the conversation around trans women remains silent.
Trans women in Nigeria remain a source of public derision, fear and mistrust. While there are no official laws against trans women, the public stance against trans people expresses itself in violent vigilantism: tire burnings, lynchings and beatings are common all over the country. With no laws to protect them, most trans women live in secrecy and terror. This International Women’s Month, two openly trans Nigerian women – Miss SaHHara and Veso Golden Oke spoke to Melissa Mordi about the treatment of trans people in Nigeria, why they deserve to be celebrated and what it means to be an African woman.
Miss SaHHara is a British Nigerian beauty queen, fashion model, singer/songwriter, and a human rights advocate. She became the first Nigerian transgender woman to come out publicly on the international press during Miss International Queen beauty pageant in Pattaya, Thailand and in 2014, she was crowned the first ever Super Sireyna Worldwide in the Philippines.
Miss Veso Golden Oke is a Nigerian trans rights activist, make-up artist and hairstylist. She currently lives in Accra, Ghana.
What does being an African woman mean to you?
SaHHara: I was brought up by amazing women, from my grandmama who gave me the freedom to be myself, to my mother who I call my superhero. African women are the matriarchs, the teachers, the storytellers, the fuel and the glue that holds the family together. They pass down phenomenal cultural heritage from generation to generation.
Veso: Being innovative, creative, showing love and kindness and loving your family!
When did you first realize you were a woman?
SaHHara: I get asked this question from cisgender people a lot and I find it strange. Just because I am a woman of trans experience doesn’t mean I didn’t know who I was growing up. I always direct that question back to the interviewers, ‘when did you know you are you?’, and they invariably answer, since they were kids. So my reply would be the same as the people asking the question. I knew who I am since I realised my innate sense of self when I was as a child. An individual’s awareness of gender identity, and the emergence of gender-typical behaviours are established by the age of two to three years. There was no epiphany, sudden self-realisation or lightbulb moment in the history of my identity.
Veso: I’ve known from childhood, from the moment I was born. I had no choice to be born on this planet.
When did you finally accept yourself?
SaHHara: I never rejected myself, society and religion rejected me. I was told I did not have the right to exist, I was told I am an abomination, a disgrace to ‘manhood’ and an immoral person for just living my life as I saw fit. Thanks to society, my life took a dark turn because of the amount of hate and discrimination I endured when I lived in Nigeria and still endure even in the UK where I am now afforded some positive opportunities and freedom to be myself.
Veso: At 14, I realized I couldn’t change anything about myself. I got educated and read links on social media to understand who I was. I accepted myself at a very young age after going through a lot of prayer sections just to feel normal. I have come to realize that I can’t change who I am. I’m a woman.
Some people argue that trans women are the result of the Western influence and not traditionally African, do you agree?
SaHHara: I disagree! Pre radical religious Africa, gender non-conforming people were accepted and celebrated in various African cultures. Before Wahhabism, ‘Dan daudus’(which is now a derogatory terminology) in Northern Nigeria, helped to cook, clean and entertain the Hausa elites and were widely accepted, even up to my secondary school years in Nigeria. Those days when Christians and Muslims coexisted as one big happy family without hate. And in Eastern Nigeria, before Christian evangelism, we had a sassy glamorous singer and performer known as ‘Area Scatter’, who entertained royalty. Nigerians are quick to defend Dan daudus’s and Area Scatter’s sexuality, but they forget that gender and sexuality are two completely different things. Sexuality is who you go to bed with, while gender is who you go to bed as. The question I have for people who see our existence as a choice is, why would anybody choose to be vilified, harassed, called names, rejected by society, disowned by family and a chance of being murdered over being accepted, loved and celebrated?
Veso: In Nigeria, we’ve let religion take over our brains completely. Kids are born differently. If we’re able to accept the Holy Trinity, to accept that God is omnipotent, Jesus had a physical form and the holy spirit is in my body, why can’t they understand that I was spiritually born a woman in a man’s body? Africans, generally, we carry religion to high and forget human rights come before it. I don’t believe being transgender is influenced by anyone. It’s just natural.
Social scientists are calling gender a social construct, do you agree?
SaHHara: It is both a social construct and biological. Using a restrictive binary system in what gender means is wrong. So where should we put people who are born intersex? Will you say they are not valid as the people they are because they don’t fit in the gender binary?
Veso: It’s not a social construct it’s something that happens naturally. I believe it is a natural phenomenon.
Upon transitioning from your assigned male gender to a woman, did you notice any changes in how you were treated?
SaHHara: I don’t use the word ‘transition’ because I didn’t change from one thing to the other. The word ‘transition’ in my opinion trivialises my identity as a woman as if I swapped instantly from one to the other like a light switch. Being trans comes from the cerebral cortex, my brain, it has always expressed and identified as a female, it did not change. My voice and my body have always been feminine. The only thing that changed in me is, I grew up and my body developed like any other human child into teenager and adulthood which is definitely not an instant process. Yes, I took some medical steps to correct minor hand biology dealt with me. That said, I did not enjoy any male privileges or know what it feels to be ‘a man or male’. I was harassed, bullied, beaten, treated as inferior to other male kids because I was ultra-feminine growing up.
Veso: Yes, a lot of. I used to have very low self-esteem but after I transitioned people accepted me more and I have more self-esteem, I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin.
Trans women are statistically three times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Have you ever experienced that?
SaHHara: Yes, I have, as a teenager in Nigeria and in the UK as an adult. Because we are seen as easy targets.
Veso: I think it’s true because there are men who target trans people. Also, trans people are naturally very sexy and attractive and it results in these sort of things happening. I’ve been assaulted and raped once. When it happened the next morning I refused to let it affect me. I’m a very strong person. I’ve never allowed myself to be fully traumatized by it. I almost took my life last time I allowed myself to be traumatized by discrimination, so never again.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s controversial statement about trans women being different from women assigned from birth because trans women were assigned male at birth, therefore accorded privileges, caused an international uproar. What’s your take on her words? Do you think there’s a difference?
SaHHara: Her opinion on trans women is heavily flawed because she thinks that all trans women have the same lived experiences as Caitlyn Jenner and many other wealthy white older trans women who started their journeys into womanhood late in life and have experienced male privileges. From her comment, it is obvious that she doesn’t know what trans female children go through in their journeys into adulthood. So where would she place someone like Jazz Jennings, Jackie Green and many other young trans kids who never lived their lives as men?
Where would she place me? The earliest part of my life was in the village with my grandmama, where I was given the freedom to bend my assigned gender, because in my innocent brain I was a female and presented as such, which was heavily frowned upon by the rest of society. I continued to do so into my teenage years even though I was beaten, sexually assaulted, called names, and threatened to be burnt alive on daily basis for simply existing. If Adichie calls all of the above male privileges, then she is seriously overstepping the bounds of logical sensibility!
Thanks to patriarchy and religion, young trans Nigerians are facing these hate, rejection from families, homelessness, and discrimination every single day because of lack of education on what it means to be in the LGBTIQ community.
Veso: I don’t think there’s any difference between women assigned female at birth and trans women. Being a woman is on the inside. It’s what you feel, that is what the essence of being a woman is. There are different forms of women, we all try very hard to be accepted in society!
Trans women are statistically two times more likely to face gender-based violence than other women. But this isn’t often discussed in the media, why do you think this is?
SaHHara: No we don’t hear about it in media, because the subject of being transgender makes many people in our communities uncomfortable. The media portrays trans women as freaks, perverts, sexual deviants and rapists. In doing so, it encourages misconceptions in society it mirrors.
Veso: It’s not discussed in the media because of the strong Christian mentality, I think they avoid talking about these issues, but I believe sexual violence happens to everyone straight or gay. It’s not about gender, it’s not about being big and strong. I think more representation is necessary.
Do you think International Women’s Day/Month celebrates trans women?
SaHHara: It could be more inclusive, especially in anti-LGBTIQ countries like Nigeria. I celebrate it every year in the UK and feels included. Coincidentally, the month of March is Trans Visibility Month, we celebrate it every 31st of March in conjunction with International Women’s month.
Veso: In Africa, I don’t think we are celebrated as much as we should be. I don’t think they even celebrate us at all. But I believe with time we will get more visibility and acceptance. Yes, I believe they celebrate trans women on International Women’s Day in the UK but in Africa, they don’t and I understand why and I think and hope in time we will get there.
How do you think we should celebrate trans women?
SaHHara: Make it legal to be in the LGBTIQ community, include trans women in female-only spaces, give trans people a voice to tell their own stories, allowing trans people to defend themselves in media when they are being vilified. Encourage cis people to use the right pronouns and names of trans people. Give trans people good opportunities, homes and jobs, let them prove their talents in media and in the entertainment industry. LGTBIQ Nigerians are not afforded the opportunity to be seen as humans, we are always seen as evil in media and society. We must change that! People forget that LGBTIQ people also pay their taxes like every other Nigerian citizen, they have the same blood running in their veins, and we were family first before religion, gender, sexuality, class, wealth, and culture divided us.
Veso: There’s no special way other than loving us as you love yourself and showing respect. It’s nothing special, you just have to be accepting and love us. Treat us the way you would treat your own sister.
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