They/Them and the rise of the third gender in Kenya
Male and female are the two universally recognised genders in the history of mankind.
From birth, our lives take the form of boy or girl, and later on man or woman, depending on age and based purely on biological features.
A boy is expected to take the pronouns he/him, while a girl is referred to as she/her.
But a growing community of people worldwide, and in Kenya and Africa, are no longer conforming to the two genders.
They say gender no longer defines them.
They are neither men nor women, neither her nor she. They are non-binary.
“I identify as non-binary so I use the pronouns they or them,” Alpha, a fashion designer in Nairobi, tells the Saturday Nation.
Alpha was assigned the female gender at birth and was named Esther Mutindi.
In high school, they began to discover more about themselves and realised they no longer wanted to be referred to by the pronouns, she or her.
Years later, Alpha fully came out as non-binary, which is an umbrella term for individuals who are not confined by the male or female gender.
They can identify as neither of them or as both.
Other terms used are genderqueer or genderfluid, but it mainly depends on how a person identifies themselves.
Zurih, formerly known as Juma Richie, was assigned the male gender at birth, as per physical qualities.
Zurih now identifies as genderqueer and also goes by the pronouns, they and them.
Other gender-neutral terms that are becoming popular are ze/hir/hirs and ze/zir/zirs.
Individuals like Zurih and Alpha are part of the growing LGBTQ+ community, known as queer people in Kenya.
For them, gender fluidity and non-conformity are more about expression and identity as opposed to sexuality.
Ruele Okeyo runs a safe house for LGBTQ+ youth who are rendered homeless when they are kicked out of their homes by their parents, evicted from their houses or kicked out by their partners thus left on the street with no support mechanisms.
“A non-binary or genderfluid person can on one day decide to be masculine by wearing a suit, and on another day express their feminine side by putting on a dress and skirt. It does not mean that that person is lesbian or gay as people would expect. A gender non-binary person can be heterosexual,” he says.
Ever since Alpha became non-binary, life has been tough outside queer safe spaces that they helped create for the community.
“I would be walking on the streets in town and men would use derogatory terms such as “Semenya” since I do not show my feminine side or they would say that I am stealing the ladies from them. I would not dare respond. I just keep on walking. When I am with queer people, I feel safe,” they said.
Zurih’s family accepted the change and respected their wishes to be non-binary.
At work, Zurih’s colleagues respect their decision by using their preferred pronouns.
However, most of the time it requires patience as most tend to slip up, forget and use their previous pronouns – he or him.
“Most people are actually really supportive about who we have chosen to become. However, some policymakers and opinion leaders influence people wrongly and spread misinformation about queer people,” Zurih says.
Alpha, on the other hand, has not had an easy time with the transition.
Working with three men, they are constantly questioned about the nature of their identity.
“They would ask me why I prefer the pronoun ‘they’. They do not understand since to them, the word means many people,” says Alpha.
Zurih doubts that there will be any changes in people’s minds about the queer community in the next few years, even though Kenya is considered a progressive nation.
“People fear the inevitable or what they do not understand. If they do not understand it, they fear it. If they cannot fear it they tend to do away with it. That is why the queer community faces very many insecurity issues. Someone who was literally minding their own business would get attacked on the streets just because of how they are dressed,” said Zurih.
The Constitution of Kenya protects the rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly, demonstration, picketing and petition.
Each of these rights may be restricted under certain specified circumstances, but there are no specific restrictions regarding the rights of queer people.
In 2015, the High Court of Kenya ruled that these rights are held by every person, including the LGBTQ+ community.
Zurih says that most of the time, the attackers happen to be men who feel triggered because they might be closeted gay people who do not want to come out in the open due to the stigma they have seen others face.
“The death of Edwin Chiloba was a reminder that the queer community does exist in Kenya. People need to accept that, then we can have more conversations about the community so people can understand what we are about.
“People think that it is just a phase but for us, but this is who we are. This is how uncomfortable we feel,” said Alpha.
In South Africa, the Foundation for Education and Social Justice Africa this week said that the terms ‘head boy’ and ‘head girl’ discriminate against students who do not identify as male or female and do not promote diversity and inclusivity.
In an interview with IOL, the founder, Hendrick Makaneta said,” To create space for learners, we need to replace head boy and head girl with an inclusive term such as president and/or deputy president. The removal of these titles would benefit learners to feel empowered to embrace their identity and stand up against homophobic bullying in schools and society. It will also assist in tackling homophobia, encourage acceptance and foster a culture of respect for LGBTQ+ rights.”
He added that there also had to be gender-neutral toilets in the schools to accommodate learners not attached to any specific gender, and transgender learners.
Countries such as Canada have taken the lead by having the largest number of gender-neutral public washrooms in public areas and even schools.
“The only way to understand is by asking. When you meet someone for the first time, ask them what they would like to be called, how they identify and what their preferred pronouns are. Whichever way a person chooses to present themselves is entirely their decision” says Ruele.
This has become a common practice on social media and emails, where people specify their preferred pronouns on their profiles or when they sign off.