Pronouns might seem like small, simple things; but to me and many others in the beautiful trans and non-binary community, they are incredibly powerful and meaningful. When someone makes the effort to use my preferred pronoun instead of making an assumption about how I identify, it makes the world feel like a safer place.Jamie Windust for BBC UK
There is a general notion among Africans that queer culture is anything but African, and in many countries on the continent, members of the LGBTQ+ community are treated as criminals, with some countries going as far as using the death penalty against them.
As the Nigerian human rights activist Bisi Alimi wrote in an article for The Guardian in 2015: “While to many people the assertion ‘homosexuality is un-African’ might just be words, to all African LGBT+ people, it puts our lives in imminent danger. It is used in South Africa to rape lesbians. It is used to pass laws and to jail, threaten or kill gay rights activists. It is used to dehumanise LGBT+ people across Africa and legitimise the hate that we face. It is the reason I receive death threats, which ultimately drove me into exile from my home in Nigeria.”
But a look at African history will tell a different story — from ancient Egyptian goddesses with penises, rock painting showing same-sex activities, male daughters found in eastern parts of Nigeria, effeminate men who are wives to other men and same-sex eroticism openly practiced in countries like Congo and Sudan — sexuality has long been fluid on our continent.
Nevertheless, the truth is that most people have a thing or two to say when it comes to gay people and their tongues of argument are usually tied to religious beliefs or just sheer hatred. Even more so for those who are transgendered or whom identify as non-binary. According to Journalist Resource, 83% of those in the LGBT community in the US who report discrimination and impaired well-being are visibly transgender.
It has also been shown that trans men and women as well as non-binary people are more likely to end up with one another when it comes to love and sexual relationships. Lesbians, gay men and bisexual people tend to steer away from being with trans and non-binary people, which doubles as an unintentional act of transphobia.
As well as all the faux love and seeming practice of acceptance, trans and non-binary Africans also have to deal with issues around being addressed by the right pronouns. Pronouns are very important because when we consciously or unconsciously misgender, we not only abruptly take their narrative and inculcate ours on them, we also inadvertently remind them of how invalid their gender identities are.
GenderGP, a health website which serves transgender people, offers a helpful article on this issue for those of us trying to get to grips with why this issue is so relevant.
As they say, it is a matter of respect for the journey a person has been on to reach this point: “Being gender variant means you do not fit into the role you were assigned at birth. It means you have fought your entire life against a role that people have tried to push you into, a role which felt wrong and uncomfortable. It takes a huge amount of courage to push back.
“In recognising people’s pronouns, in taking the time to learn and to adapt, you are evolving your world view to be more inclusive, you are accepting that trans and non-binary people not only exist but should be recognised and acknowledged, with the due respect. This is incredibly affirming and empowering for that individual who has struggled with acceptance all their life.”
Ultimately, as the world — and Africa — is finally metamorphosing in order to understand other ways of being, it is imperative that we sit, listen, have conversations, ask constructive questions and generally try to understand where others are coming from.
To this end, I had conversations with a few people who shared their thoughts, experiences, struggles and problems surrounding acknowledgement of sexual identities.
Matthew Blaise — He/They
If you’re a queer person, an ally or even a homophobe, you could well have come across Matthew Blaise. The 21-year-old Nigerian non-binary person and activist started #QueerLivesMatter, a movement that spurred on the #ENDSARS protest in Nigeria last year.
The viral video of them spreading the necessary message about how queer Nigerian lives mattered, has received over three million views, 60 000 likes and 18 000 retweets on social media. This video and others of their activities have earned them the recognition of queer-focused and inclusive publications such as Pink News, Dazed Beauty, Out, Audible, The Times, British Vogue and they featured in The Rustin Times documentary Defiance.
On 23 January 2021, Blaise followed through with their plans of creating a queer-only safe space, The Oasis Project, focused on the uplifting on trans men and women, as well as non-binary people who need this platform to thrive. To this end, they hoped to inspire and validate dreams.
Blaise shared some of their own personal struggles with regards their sexual orientation and the incorrect use of pronouns with me:
How do you deal with misgendering?
I try as much as I can to correct them, when I want to correct them. But when they do it intentionally, I tend to walk away because I can’t get physical with them, and also because we live in a very transphobic society.
How long have you been going by the they/them pronouns?
I started to use the They/Them pronoun last year, when I discovered my gender identity. I’ve been using it to conform to my own status as a person.
What would you say makes being called by the right pronouns so important?
For me, being called by the right pronouns is a thing of respect, and although it doesn’t end there, it is you as a person respecting me when you call me by my right pronouns.
Have there been improvements towards misgendering?
No, not really. I don’t even want to stress it anymore, and I think it’s because people are so lazy. Again, I’m in a very transphobic society, so I just allow them, even when it gets to me.
Makes sense. How long do you think this ignorance will last?
I think this will stand as long as people are not educated, so I think education is very important as to how people perceive this.
Any suggestions as to what can be done to make people understand the importance of pronouns here in Africa?
I’m really not sure what we can do. I think we’re already doing enough by existing, so it’s left for them to educate themselves and get a proper understanding on what we stand for. They have to on their own will, get intellectually empowered on issues around non-binary gender identities. It’s left to them to be grounded with this knowledge.
Blaise’s work preceeds them and they spend the bulk of their time involved in educating anyone and everyone who cares to listen about the struggles of being queer in Africa.
Michelle — She/They.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
Elle. That’s what I wish most people would call me. So I suppose it would be easiest to say that is my name. Elle. I’m a non-binary lesbian living in Nairobi, the only city — with the exception of Arusha, Tanzania — that I have ever called home. I find it difficult to describe myself because I am so many things. I’m a writer, I’m a painter sometimes, a singer at other times. Who I am, comprises the things I like to do and the people I surround myself with. Outside of those things, my identity is as hard to understand as it is to explain. I am the community around me; strong, resilient, extremely queer and (sometimes unfortunately) Kenyan.
Are you out yet?
Well, yes and no. I’m out to my friends and also on social media, but not to my parents. They cannot even begin to fathom what non-binary means, let alone that their child is one.
Do you think it’s hard because you’re an African in Africa?
Most definitely. Life as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is extremely difficult when you’re African. Acceptance is not a part of our vocabulary. The society has deeply ingrained, post-colonial religious values that dictate not just how individuals live but how the state interacts with certain people and, more importantly, who the state believes is deserving of basic human rights. That, coupled with the cis-hetero, patriarchal structures of African society makes existing as anything outside “the norm” a game of survival.
How are the people you know adjusting to your pronouns?
Not great! And it’s upsetting because even the most progressive of friends refuse to acknowledge my pronouns unless I’m presently androgynous, which I rarely do by the way.
So, there’s really no peer or family member you’ve been out to, who’s being intentional about respecting your pronouns?
Well, my partner also identifies as non-binary. They’re really sweet and adorable and understanding; but I have a lot of cis gender friends too, and that’s where the much of my problem lies.
How have you handled this ignorance?
It’s really hard to not take their lack of understanding personally. Most of the time, I feel somewhat ignored … like they would like my tweets about my correct pronouns and the gendered terms I do not want to be called, but in a few moments, text me with the exact same terms I’ve made clear made me uncomfortable. It’s a struggle, really.
Have you ever thought to correct a hetero person about your preferred pronoun?
I’m scared to correct them. I’m scared to correct them because besides subtle transphobia being a thing, I do not want to put myself in a situation where someone is out-rightly disrespectful or violent towards me; especially because that hatred is coupled with lesbophobia, which in this country, can be very deadly.
Imani Maya — They/Them.
Imani Maya, whose original name was Melany, is a 21-year-old non-binary, trans person currently studying their MA in the United Kingdom. They’re Kenyan, raised in Nairobi.
Are you out yet?
I feel like I’m out, but I haven’t really “announced” it as such; and to be honest, I don’t think I will.
How did you mentally transition, and how has the whole process been for you?
I just started to change small things about myself, then underlining them in my conversations with people. I created a whole other Instagram account, where I explored my feelings and my gender. It was just me posting pictures and reflecting on my identity. Soon, other non-binary trans dragkings and queens began to follow me from the different corners of the world.
Yes. Then, I started doing my she/they/he pronouns just to test out what I preferred. I just felt really fluid about this language usage. Having an alias, for me, is a matter of identity, and as such, a matter of security. I very well relate with my self of selfs, my gender, my identity, and how I feel internally versus how I arrive in the world.
What do you do to assure yourself of your validity, which of course is the most important?
Online was a place I could really explore my identity. Being an academic and a writer/poet/amateur performer, black queerness has heavily reflected in my research interests. I also participate in black queer events. There was this one time I was a beneficiary of a project by a black trans British-Ghanaian, “Safe in Sound.” It was a collection of affirmation for black, non-binary and transfemme people, by black non-binary transfemme people. They were in the form of a voice and sound, and this was very affirming to me. I told them who I was, and everyone just picked it up from there, calling me by my preferred pronouns. It never changed. It was so small, yet so significant.
How have you managed the interphasing identity crisis from people?
I usually remind myself to make it about me. My Kenyan and black LGBT community here in the UK really supported me in this. I’m not British at all, but being here and being black, I needed them.
What has been your reaction towards misgendering?
I have been putting my pronouns in my social media names a lot, but people still misgender. To be honest, I sometimes choose not to be bothered … it’s kinda tiring. Most times, they just unconsciously gloss over it. I’m currently interning at a place, and I told my boss about my preferred pronouns. She told me they would try as much as they could to accommodate it. But every now and then, they keep misgendering. I hardly speak about it because I do not want to make a big deal out of it. Somewhere in my mind, I just pray silent prayers that they call in line, one person at a time.