While the western world has made significant strides in accepting transgender people, Africa stills lags behind. Letoya Johnstone, an openly transgender Kenyan woman shares her struggles to find acceptance, and ultimately, herself.
Letoya is one of the few transgender people in Kenya who are open about their identity. She sits opposite me in a crowded coffee shop, taking small bites of the food in front of her, sipping lemonade, and pulling her hair. She dons a white vest, a ragged denim jacket, kitenge print shorts, and bright rings on her fingers- an androgynous getup that allows her to blend safely into Nairobi's streets while also expressing her feminine side. I spy the people around us looking in our direction in curious confusion, fascinated by her 'otherness'. Letoya is a 25-year-old Kenyan transgender woman. She is a model, runway catwalk coach, stylist, talent manager, and counselor.
She realised that she was different when she went to high school, the same time she was undergoing puberty. "At that point, I started getting attracted to boys instead of girls. I would try to suppress my feelings and date girls. I thought maybe it was a phase that would pass. But I would end up being best friends with the girls I tried to date and the relationship would only be platonic. I was attracted to men but never really knew how to handle it, so I remained a virgin.
At the beginning of the interview, I asked her which pronoun she preferred. She laughed her good-natured laugh, "I'm a 'she', darling. But I understand when people call me a 'he'. They are just going by what their eyes are telling them," she said. "It's like when someone is drinking from a coffee cup, you expect them to be taking coffee. But they could be drinking anything- maybe vodka or wine or water. The same way, these bodies don't automatically determine what's inside. I was born a man yes, but I'm a woman inside. My soul is a woman's trapped in a man's body" she elaborated.
And this way of life has cost her.
"I have been assaulted, raped, insulted, and made to feel like I'm less than human. I have hit the lowest point anyone can get to in life, battled depression, and attempted severally to commit suicide. I am still here... but I don't feel whole, I don't feel healed, I don't feel like I'll ever be ok...I'm broken," says Letoya Johstone as she nervously pulls at her short, coloured hair.
"My adoptive mama would try to change me through beating me and pressurising me to marry a girl. At some point I would be locked up with the dogs. My school fees would go unpaid. It was a very horrible experience," she says.
Like most transgender people, Letoya says that she's never felt at home in her body. "Growing up, I was drawn to things which were supposed to be for girls. When playing house with other children, I would take up the mother role... never the father. I also loved to play with my doll- I would dress her up. When I was given the conventional 'boy' toys like cars, I would end up giving them away to my cousins. I also liked wearing high heels and dressing up in girl's clothes while
playing. But at that point, I didn't think much of it and neither did the people around me. They brushed it off as 'they're just kids playing'," she says.
Growing up in rural Kendu Bay and later Homa Bay, I had never heard of transgender people. I had only heard of gay people, and for a long time I thought I was just gay. I was confusing sexual orientation and gender identity" says Letoya.
Much like in the general population, the confusion of gender and sexuality is not uncommon in the LGBT community. Most people think of transgender as another kind of homosexual. However, being transgender is independent of sexual orientation. This means that just like the rest of the population transgender people can also identify as heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, or homosexual. "Deep inside, I didn't feel like I was gay. I didn't see it as being attracted to people of the same sex. I felt I was a woman and just like other women, was attracted to men. When going out with my friends, I wanted to dress up in heels and dresses like the other ladies. It was all very confusing to me," she says.
As she learned more about herself and got more exposed, she realised that she was transgender, not gay. "It's only when I went to college that I realised I was transgender. This was quite recent...like three or four years ago. It was in a way, liberating," she says.
However, her life wasn't wade any easier by defining herself as transgender. If anything, it became harder. She had to face harassment, both from the public and from close friends and family. "As a child, I was always treated different anyway; my family wasn't a loving one. My biological parents died when I was a child and I was adopted by relatives. I don't like talking about my family in the media. All I can say is that I appreciate the people who were there for me. It wasn't easy and I know they weren't capable of understanding the concept of transgender people.
About three years ago, she finally publicly announced that she was transgender. "I wrote a Facebook post about it. At that point I thought, enough is enough. After all, nobody loves me anyway. So I might as well be true to who I am. People insulted me. I have gone through so much hatred, harassment, abuse, and depression. I had tried to commit suicide five times. Fortunately, I had gone through counseling and decided to live."
In 2008, at the height of the post election violence which rocked the country, Letoya was waylaid and gang-raped by a group of unknown men. "I was going to the shop this group of men grabbed me, pushed me to the ground and sexually assaulted me. This was in Homa Bay. It was dark, so I couldn't even identify them. I went to the hospital to take HIV prophylaxis drugs. When the doctor in charge learned that I was gay- as I identified as then- he refused to treat me. That was so painful to me. I was almost dying and was refused treatment because of my sexuality."
What Letoya went through is quintessential of many transgender experiences across the world. Statistics documenting sexual violence against transgender people in the U.S show that one in two transgender people are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives. A report by an American organization called National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs showed that 50% of people who died in violent hate crimes against the LGBTI community were transgender women. Moreover, transphobia is rife in health care all over the world, making it more difficult for trans people to get the care they need after rape and sexual assault.
In Kenya, transgender people submitted a memorandum on the 2016 Health Bill seeking to be legally recognized and to curb the stigma associated with trans identity. They said that they face plenty of challenges in accessing health care in the country.
Speaking of her rape experience, Letoya says "It's one that that really brought me down both emotionally and physically. I don't feel like I'm a human being. Up to now, I haven't healed from that experience. I don't see myself as a valuable person, or a person that people can trust their kids with. Not because I would do anything to them, but because people say I might turn children to be like me. At some point, you start believing these things."
After surviving the gang-rape ordeal, Letoya fell into a deep depression. On five occasions, she tried to commit suicide. "I wanted to jump from the fourth floor of a building in Homa Bay and I considered hanging myself. People were mocking me and implying that I deserved to get raped because I wanted to be a woman. The police didn't take my case seriously. I had no protection, even from the authorities."
Transgender people face alarmingly high risk of suicide. According to various studies, 41% of transgender people attempt to commit suicide compared to 4.6% in the general population. Prof Wamue-Ngare says that while shocking, these statistics are not surprising. "Many transgender people went through trauma as children and continue to be traumatized as adults. I expect that it's not easy for them and some might end up committing suicide."
Letoya later went on to study counseling psychology, which helped her- to some extent- to deal with her trauma. She spends some of her time working at a hospital counseling youths struggling with gender identity and sexual orientation. "My training has also taught me how to help other people with similar experiences," she says.
Letoya finally found self acceptance and decided to live her truth boldly. She enjoys her career in the fashion industry, saying that she's always been interested in the field. "From when I was a child, I was doing fashion shows and photo shoots...but as a boy. I only did my first show in a dress in 2014," she says.
Although she says that the fashion industry is relatively liberal, she still encounters stigma. "Most don't want to associate with me because of my gender identity. They try to control what I wear, how I conduct myself. So when I'm working with somebody it's like they don't want me to be myself, they want me to be someone else. I end up conforming because I need the money. But even with that, I have lost several jobs because of being transgender," she says
She's never worn a dress in public. "I don't want to provoke people and give them an opportunity to kill me in the streets," she says. However, she indulges in female underwear and makes her outfits as androgynous as possible. She also likes female perfumes.
Letoya is always worried about her safety and has resigned herself to what she considers her ultimate fate. "I never do anything to hurt another person. I give people love, because it's something I lack in my own life. That's why I call people 'darling or sweetheart' when talking to them. But I know that there's somebody somewhere who'll eventually kill me. My life is always in danger. I even have a neighbor who keeps on threatening me," she says.
Her concerns are not unfounded. Existing as a transgender person in Africa, and across the world, is never safe. Between 2009 and 2016, there were 2,115 documented killings of transgender people worldwide. Bearing in mind that some cases go unreported, the actual number of killings is expected to be even higher.
Dating while trans
To add to social stigma, trans people face even more challenges in finding romantic partners than their gay, lesbian or bisexual counterparts. Although some men fetishize transgender women, very few want to be in relationship with a transgender woman.
Letoya says that she's never really been in a relationship and has given up on ever finding love. "People want you in the dark, but pretend not to know you during the day. They tell you 'I don't want anyone to know about this.' You love someone but they don't love you back. They're just using and discarding you. Also there's the worry that the people you're attracted to might turn against you, or use your attraction to them to embarrass you. I've been single all my life and don't even think of dating. I'm not used to love and I'm even skeptical when someone shows me affection."
Transgender people have the option of undergoing gender reassignment- a process that involves both hormonal therapy and surgery. While most transgender people shown in the media have undergone or are in the process of undergoing gender reassignment treatment, the everyday transgender person is less likely to do it. This can be due to economic constraints, apprehensiveness about the process, and religious/personal beliefs.
Letoya says that even though she would have liked hormonal treatment if she could afford it, she would never consider gender reassignment surgery because of her religious beliefs. "I was raised in the Catholic church. I believe in God and that he created me in his image. Even though I feel like I'm in the wrong body, I don't want to tamper with how God created me. I go to church although I don't feel accepted there. The Bible gives me comfort, which is weird because people use the same Bible to attack me," she says.
In Kenya, gender reassignment surgery is still a pipe dream. Kenya's first and perhaps only sex reassignment surgery was done in the 1980s on a woman only identified as Rose. Six months after the surgery, Rose committed suicide because of the stigma that still plagued her.
In April 2012, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reported that a witness who had undergone the process of reassignment claimed that she had been denied the surgery by Kenyatta National Hospital without giving any reasons. Her subsequent attempts to appeal to the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists' Board had been futile.
Additionally, Kenya doesn't have laws to allow a person to change their gender from the one assigned at birth. Currently South Africa and Botswana are the only African countries which have laws to allow official documents to be changed to suit desired gender. The caveat is that you still need to show medical proof of transition- a sex change.
Letoya says that she will probably never change her gender in her official documents. "It's a long process which I don't have the money, time, or energy for. Letoya is the name in my birth certificate and I like it," she says.
Professor Wamae-Ngare says that while having a sex-change surgery might bring the transgender person some satisfaction, it's not a long-term solution. "One will always be genetically male or female, regardless of the surgery. As a society we can't just give transgender people hormones of the gender they desire or surgically change their sex organs and call that a solution. Changing a name doesn't really change anything either. We have to go back to the root cause. Let's strengthen the social set-up and the family values. We should stop abandoning our culture for western culture. We can still retain our culture and be civilized."
Most transgender people choose to transition only socially (such as wearing clothes of their desired gender), some go for hormone replacement therapy, while others go for combined Hormone Replacement Therapy and Sex Reassignment Surgery.
Hormone Replacement Therapy: Taking synthetic hormones to cause the development of the desired secondary sexual characteristics such as growth of breast or beard, deepening of voice, and muscle distribution. The hormones taken include estrogens, antiandrogens, and progestogens.
Sex Reassignment Surgery: The surgical procedure (or procedures) to alter the sexual organs to resemble those of the desired gender. For trans women, these procedures include penectomy to remove the penis, orchiectomy to remove testicles, and vaginoplasty to create a vagina. Trans men go for masculinizing genitoplasty such as metoidioplsty to enlarge the clitoris, or phalloplasty to create a penis.