Monday, September 7, 2009

Kenyans and the man-woman thing: Thanks Semenya!

Kenya’s own Janeth Jepkosgei lost the recent 800 metres race at the World Championships in Berlin to Caster Semenya of South Africa. Kenyans seem to be waiting for the answer to the question, “Is Miss Caster Semenya a woman?” If the answer is in the negative then our own Jepkosgei gets the gold medal. I want to urge Kenyans to simply go beyond the gold medal and bring the Semenya controversy close to home. How do we deal with our Semenyas in various fields of excellence? Shall we disown them or glorify them?
If Semenya is intersex – has sex organs of both gender – is the IAAF going to make a scientific decision or a social decision? Who has the right to determine her gender if she is intersex and has decided she is a woman? Does this issue not tell us that we are dealing with a complex issue, may be the end of gender as we know it?
Three interesting books deal with personal stories of people who are intersex, who went through operations and became either men or women or simply transgender. For Kenyans who want to be sensitive to these issues I urge them to read: Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender by Riki Anne Wilchins; Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green and Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits by Loren Cameron.
It is true these operations are necessitated by individuals who are convinced that they are “trapped” in the bodies of the opposite gender. Riki tells her story of the operation to become a woman while James and Loren underwent operations to become men. These are real life stories that will capture one’s imagination, sympathy, understanding and respect for difference and humanity.
Intersex grown ups
We tend to dismiss the issue of difference by casting it in moral or cultural arguments. I know that many intersex babies in Kenya have operations the moment they are born, here the decisions being made by the parents. As one would imagine, the majority of these babies end up being male. Problems crop up later when the adults want to reverse those decisions by their parents. It is also common knowledge that intersex grown ups who seek operations after making their own decisions invariably find surgeons who ask them to seek the permission of their parents, their adulthood notwithstanding! It is not that as Kenyans we do not know this problem. We do. We seem to refuse to treat it with the humanity it deserves.
We are also a very homophobic nation, although I believe we have not reached the horrific levels of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Do we regard LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) people as human beings who are simply different? Can we on any legal or moral basis argue that gay people should be killed on the basis of their sexual orientation? Should we condone discrimination in whatever form on the basis of sexual orientation? What do we do when our relatives are gay? Do we announce from the rooftops that they are sick and unmitigated sinners? Why should we play God in these matters? The foremost bastions of homophobia in many countries seem to be religious institutions although I am sure they have no problems pocketing the offerings of gay people.
God's role
We need, as a nation, to correct the issue of discrimination. As we discuss a new constitution we may want to discuss these issues of difference and discrimination. Most of the gay groups in East Africa are founded by young people who crave for understanding and respect for their rights to be different. Cursing people who are gay, killing them, discriminating them in jobs, housing and in health will not make them disappear. If we are, indeed, religious we need to accept God’s role in the creation and in the difference and at least discuss the issue. I believe the first place where we should start this discussion is in the family and cultivate understand that can perhaps permeate to the rest of society.
One final word of advice to all Kenyans who want to stand up and be counted in the struggle for equality and rights of the sexual minorities is the realisation that you do not have to be gay to protect gay rights.
I wonder if Semenya was Kenyan we would have flocked the JKIA to welcome her. Her family, relatives and the wilder society in South Africa glorified her victory. May be Semenya’s controversy will keep Kenyans thinking through these broader issues and not the gold medal. Thank you Semenya!

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