Is it possible to be uncomfortable with one’s gender? Well, according to transgender people and the intersex, it is very possible. Transgender people refer to individuals who strongly feel they are not the gender they physically appear to be while the intersex refer to individuals born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. We caught up with two individuals who share on being uncomfortable with their assigned gender and how they finally came out of it.
Compiled by: Henry Kahara, Esther Kiragu and Esther Akello.
Letoya Johnstone is no ordinary girl. Upon a closer look, you will realise she is flat chested, probably more than most girls and she has a slight moustache and budding sideburns.
Her build is tall and athletic and if one feels she could pass for a man, it’s because she is, except that Letoya does not identify with her male birth assigned gender. She is transgender and chooses to identify with her female self.
A transgender individual is a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex and for Letoya, the correlation between her birth assigned gender and identity has always been missing.
“I grew up in in Kendu Bay and Homa Bay and even then, I preferred fetching water instead of grazing cows. I loved playing with my doll Helen and whenever we played house I wanted to be mama. I didn’t think it was strange until people started pointing out that my attraction to girlish things was unsettling,” she recalls.
As friends and family grew worried, Letoya tried to conform to her male gender. As a teenager, she dated girls but when people weren’t looking, she would slip back into her female tendencies.
“The girls I dated ended up becoming my best friends. Due to financial struggles, I worked as a housemaid when I was in high school and sometimes, I would actually pass as a girl. The men of the house never suspected a thing, but the women always found out,” she confesses.
Making friends also proved to be hard, leading to depression. “I struggled with the definition of who I was supposed to be. People were brought in to pray for me and rituals conducted to ‘exorcise the demons in me’. I tried to commit suicide five times and failed. I’ve learnt not to dwell on the dark moments in my life otherwise I’d break down,” she adds.
It was only after high school that Letoya truly learnt to embrace herself. “I used to attend an MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) clinic following a rape incident. One day as I was talking to a psychologist, I asked her if I was crazy. She replied that I was alright, vibrant and amazing. It was then I accepted myself and never looked back. Through MSF, I even enrolled for a counselling and psychology course,” Letoya offers.
Letoya is among the few people who openly live as transgender in Kenya. While that gives her an element of peace, it doesn’t necessarily mean freedom.
“I can’t say that when I look in the mirror I’m comfortable with what I see. I want to transition – fully transform into a woman through surgery and hormone replacement therapy – as I can’t even walk down the street without being abused. I don’t know if people are open or even ready to the idea of me changing my sexuality. It’s too much to think about,” she says.
Religion also weighs heavily on Letoya’s desire to transition. “I am a staunch Catholic. I struggle with the definition of my spirituality as well because Christianity has been used to attack my sexuality. I do, however, read the Bible especially when I need encouragement,” Letoya expounds.
Living openly has also not made love come easy. Letoya is attracted to men and while many approach her for a relationship, it is mostly undercover. She says that most of the men who approach her live double lives – with a wife and raising a family in public, but sustaining gay relationships on the down low. Following many instances of abuse and manipulation, Letoya admits she has put dating on hold.
While being transgender has its downside, Letoya says it has its upsides. She was recently among the few beauty industry players handpicked by international French cosmetics brand Lancôme to test their products in Kenya (Letoya enjoys massive following on social media). Black Opal also approached her to test their local products.
To Letoya, it simply means the world is becoming more open minded towards the lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer community. The fashion stylist and model trainer strongly believes that the opportunity wouldn’t have come if she weren’t living openly as a transgender.
While she is not sure of what the future portends, Letoya is sure of one thing, “I know one day I’m going to die. But when I do, it will be in my own skin.”
When Ryan Muiruri was born, his mother was torn in a dilemma on whether to give him a boy’s or a girl’s name.
Ryan is an intersex; a person born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Ryan, has an ambiguous genitalia – a rare condition in which external genitals don’t appear to be clearly either male or female.
His mother decided to give him a girl’s name – Ruth Wangui – but as time went on, his physique didn’t fit that of a girl child. This saw him change his name to Ryan Muiruri.
“I tried as much as possible to act as a normal girl but puberty laid everything bare as I developed masculine features rather than feminine. It was tough growing up as many people did not know about intersex individuals,” explains the 27-year-old.
As such, he experienced rejection but even more bruising was the battle that was taking place in his inner self. As a child, he thought he was normal and never understood why other people, apart from his mother, treated him differently.
As they say, time will tell and indeed it told as Ryan started noticing he was different from other children, as he grew older. Due to the ambiguity in his gender, he was considered a bad omen and his father wanted nothing to do with him or his mother.
Understandably, life has not been a walk in the park for Ryan. Attempts have been made on his life and to top it up, he too has tried to commit suicide several times. Ironically, it is the cheating of death that made him realise he has a purpose on earth.
“I dropped out of school in form two as stigma was too high and I couldn’t withstand it. I have purposed to support others who are like me to reach their goals. No one chooses to be an intersex. This is an innate condition and there is little we can do about it,” he explains.
Ryan started the Intersex Persons Society of Kenya with an aim to educate, create awareness about intersex in Kenya and reach out to victims. Furthermore, the organisation offers counselling to parents with intersex children to enable them embrace their children.
“I have been harassed by police officers for personification as the name on my identity card contrasts the person that I am. My ID and birth certificates say I am Ruth Wangui but now I am Ryan Muiruri. I have tried to change my identity card and my efforts are yet to bear fruit,” he notes.
He reveals that through nominated MP Isaac Mwaura, they are pushing for a bill that will see intersex individuals considered as a third gender in the country. He says there is need for the government to come up with a law to protect them, as he has been stripped before.
“There are people who want to confirm what they hear about intersex people and they thus harass us,” he says forlornly.
Advice to parents…
Ryan advises parents with intersex children to have a talk with them when they become of age. “Talk to your child about the condition and let them know that all is well. At the same time, look for a medical doctor who can help you on how to go about it,” he says.
He posits that it’s unfortunate most parents keep quiet about the issue thereby subjecting their children to suffering while others kill the children as they are regarded as a bad omen in some communities. He urges the society to embrace intersex individuals since they are human beings like any other, only that they have the condition.
He further advises parents to let their children’s teachers know that their children are intersex so that they can protect them from bullies. At the same time, he warns against taking such children to a boarding school as fellow students may harass them.
“If your child has this condition, it is good to look for a counsellor who can walk with you as it is sometimes stressing. My mum was more stressed than I was because we were the talk of the village. As for me, I was but an innocent child who hadn’t grasped the idea of male and female,” he says.
Currently, Ryan is happy that people’s perception are changing as last year, his uncle organised a big party that saw him officially change his name from Ruth to Ryan.
However, he notes that discrimination for the intersex is still rampant in the country.
“I know most of the intersex have lost hope in life but I want to encourage them that they are human beings too and thus deserve to be treated with dignity,” he says.
It’s the tough time he has gone through in life that has made him develop a close relationship with God. “Before I was bitter with God but I am now at ease and the fact that I have accepted myself has seen me get peace,” he says.
Understanding gender identity crisis Transgender (Gender identity disorder)
Gender identity disorder is often described as a strong, persistent feeling of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned sex.
For instance, one may be born as a man biologically but continues to have strong persistent feelings that they are meant to be a woman and vice versa. As a result, they begin to adopt mannerisms similar to the sex they feel they identify with such as dressing, walking, talking and may even change their name.
Dr Gladys Mwiti, a consultant clinical psychologist and the founder of Oasis Africa, says very little research shows that gender identity disorder is as a result of nature. “A lot of evidence seem to suggest that it is a learned behaviour often shaped by the environment,” she says.
According to Dr Mwiti, gender identity disorder is a confusion of one’s identity. She emphasises that children tend to grow how they are socialised and hence the need for intentional parenting about how one would like their child to turn out by shaping their child’s behaviour especially in their formative years.
“Research indicates that the first 13 years of a child are critical as these are the years of attachment for a child and parent. However, in many homes, you find that most of the kids in this age are enrolled in boarding schools away from their parents, which I strongly discourage. When you dislodge the child from the parent during these critical years of attachment, then they end up getting attached to anything or anyone else as well as manipulation from whatever environment they are in,” she explains.
As children grow up, most of them do not have a lot of sexual experimentation until they are teenagers when the hormones kick in and they begin to seek an identity. This explains why adolescence is marked by identity crisis.
“As a parent, just because your child exhibits gender identity disorder does not mean that you have to accept it. You can still love your child without judging or disassociating from him.
However, you should balance your acceptance of him by keeping constant communication because the child is likely to become socially isolated, whether by choice or through ostracisation from age mates, which can contribute to them having low self-esteem, being depressed or even having suicidal thoughts. It is therefore important that your love for your child is not crowded or clouded with anger, blaming, disappointment or name calling because this will only aggravate things further,” she explains.
Previously, intersex people were referred to as hermaphrodites but the term is no longer in use as it is considered to be derogatory. The concept of intersex seems to be an area that has not been understood by many.
For instance, a University of Oregon professor and intersex expert Elizabeth Reis writes in her book Bodies in Doubt: ‘In the United States and most other places in the world, humans are men or they are women; they may not be neither or both. Yet not all bodies are clearly male or female.’
This means that a child could have typical female chromosomes and ovaries but external body parts of a male, or that the body parts a doctor looks at when declaring a baby to be a girl or boy may be incompletely formed or ambiguous.
Studies show that in the 1950s, a team of medical specialists at Johns Hopkins University developed a system for treating children with intersex.
The notion was that the main thing you had to do in cases of intersex was to get the gender assignment of a child settled early, so that the child would grow up to be “good, believable and straight” girls and boys.
However, even so, there were incidences where such children in their adulthood were uncomfortable with the gender assigned, possibly a proof that gender roles are not always as a result of socialisation.
Some psychologists and sociologists have differing opinions where some say that gender roles aren’t always socially constructed and others believe that gender roles are shaped by the presence or absence of certain hormones at birth.