The case of Brenda Ochieng as highlighted on the NTV news recently (see video here), clearly shows that both the Kenyan Public and Media are largely ignorant and blind with regards to Gender Identity issues. To give a better understanding to the Media (and all of us) and elicit discussions aimed at appreciating diversity in gender identity, Jinsiangu has prepared the following brief.
Jinsiangu is a Nairobi-based group for intersex and transgender Kenyans. Our mission is to create safe spaces for and increase the well-being of intersex and transgender (IT) people in Kenya. The group is led by IT people themselves, and strives to develop a country in which all citizens are free to determine and express their own gender. Our name is a combination of the words ‘jinsia yangu’, “my gender.”
The purpose of this brief is to introduce media actors to the common terms and concepts used in the intersex and transgender community. We are writing this in response to the media’s tendency to confuse sexual minorities and gender minorities, and to ignore gender identity altogether. We hope that this will clarify what it means to be a gender minority in Kenya, and encourage members of the media to contact us if more clarification is needed.
An intersex person is a person whose genitals, hormonal composition and/or secondary sex characteristics do not fit neatly into the categories of “male” or “female”. Sometimes intersex people don’t know that they’re intersex until later in life. When a person is deemed intersex at birth, doctors and/or families will often decide the gender of the individual and raise them as such, rather than allowing them to determine their own gender.
A transgender person is a person whose gender does not match up to the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a person may be born with a “female” body but know that they are really male. Some transgender people choose to transition, making their biological body fit their gender identity. Others do not. A person who is undergoing or has undergone physical transition is often called a transsexual. Many individuals now prefer the short name trans.
Intersex and transgender people are gender minorities. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are sexual minorities.
What is the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity?
Your sexual orientation determines the gender of the people you are attracted to: whether male, female, both, neither, or to people who don’t fit into any of these categories. Everybody has a sexual orientation. Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and asexual are examples of different sexual orientations.
Your gender identity, on the other hand, is how you understand your own gender: whether you are female, male, or a third or other gender. Everybody has a gender identity, but transgender and intersex people often experience discrimination because their gender identity is considered to be unusual.
What challenges do intersex and transgender people face?
Just as gender identity and sexual orientation are different aspects of every person, the issues of gender minorities and sexual minorities are different.
Transgender and intersex people are not criminalised under the Penal Code. However, they do face widespread social discrimination. Because of stigma against gender minorities, many IT people have difficulty accessing basics such as employment, housing and education. Some also struggle with trauma following violent attacks, social isolation and/or sexual assault.
Intersex and transgender people suffer when they are forced to fit into systems that do not recognise or include them. They frequently have problems obtaining official documentation (such as national ID cards and passports) that match their gender and names of choice. As a result, it is more difficult for IT people to access services, vote and travel across borders. They are also sometimes subject to police harassment or arrest for “impersonation” when their gender presentation and listed gender don’t match up.
In the medical realm, many intersex babies are forcibly operated upon shortly after birth to make their bodies conform to what doctors believe a “normal” body should look like. This surgery is often unnecessary and may cause physical or emotional problems later on in life. Intersex persons, like every person, should have control over what is done to their own bodies.
Some adult intersex and transgender people will seek hormone therapy and surgeries as part of the physical transition process. Doctors will often refuse to grant these medical treatments because of a lack of understanding of transgender and intersex conditions. In addition to this, IT people have problems accessing everyday health care because their bodies or gender presentation look “different” than other peoples’. This may lead to ridicule or denial of services from the very medical professionals who are meant to be protecting the health of all Kenyans.
What can the media do to help combat discrimination?
The media has a very important role to play in increasing understanding of intersex and transgender Kenyans through unbiased, informed reporting. While we appreciate the media’s recent efforts to report on LGBTI issues in an objective manner, we ask that you fully educate yourselves on gender identity and IT issues before you report. We request that you refrain from sensationalising the lives of gender minorities or confusing us with sexual minorities. We are a unique group with our own challenges, and deserve respect and understanding.