Southern Africa: Difference does not equal insanity

Date: February 3, 2011
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Pop quiz.

Question one: how many people do you know who are transsexual, transgendered or intersex? Question two: how many times have you come across the voices of such people when you hear about gender-based violence? Question three: what exactly does gender mean?

The answers to these questions are found within the gaps of the movement to prevent gender-based violence and the gaps in our understanding of the complexities of gender. Gender is mainly seen as the inherent sex of a person. Unfortunately, the sex that dominates the spotlight when it comes to violence is women.

The idea of women garnering attention as the main victims of gender-based violence is hugely problematic; it falls into the trap of labelling gender as a binary system of male-female. It does not consider gender as a social construction along a continuum of identities – identities that change as access to upward social mobility is either obstructed or opened.

Addressing gender-based violence through a binary lens inadvertently increases it against those who fall outside the parameters of a dual-gender perspective. When there is a consistent way of thinking that sees gender as absolute female or absolute male, all other alternatives, such as transgender, transsexual and intersex, become perceived as abnormal.

A person who is transgendered doesn’t fall into traditional gender categories, often rejecting traditional gender roles linked to their genetically-defined sex. Similarly for someone who is transsexual and desires to be accepted as the opposite sex to that which they were born. Meanwhile, someone who is intersexual lives with a combination of both male and female characteristics, ensuring they cannot be categorised according to a binary gender paradigm.

The perception of these people as abnormal sees them an impediment to “normal” life structures. Abnormalities are perceived as a threat to the “normal” flow of society, or, worse, as insanity. Under the gender binary system, when one identifies as something other than male or female, it is a “choice” that is usually considered not only extremely foolish, but insane.

And how does society deal with abnormalities? We typically deconstruct, destroy, contain, maintain and detain them by force. Thus, being of a gender outside of the male-female binary system becomes a dangerous affiliation to hold.

Mainstream statistics on specific violence targeted at persons identifying within alternative notions of gender are not surprisingly few and far between. What we do know is that gays and lesbians remain regular targets in most parts of Africa. Last week’s murder of Ugandan gay activist David Kato is but one example. Knowing this, it is not a stretch to assume that those who identify as transgendered or intersex also face similar violence.

Some societies are slowly beginning to grapple with the idea that alternative lifestyles are deserving of mutual respect. But where there has been greater acceptance of those living alternative lifestyles, it has not always been followed by specialised services for them.

The voices of some gender advocates illuminate what many living alternative gender lives know all too well, that those living outside the gender binary system (falling into the category of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and intersex: LGBTQI) are still second to most other human rights issues.

The 2009 Human Rights Watch report Together, Apart, provides us with a glimpse into the level of violence people of alternative genders and sexualities (and those who advocate on their behalf) face. It notes of sub-Saharan Africa: “Virtually any move LGBT groups make, from renting an apartment to holding a press conference, can feed a violent moral panic, where media, religious figures, and government collude.”

A country like South Africa ushered in a great gain for the movement by becoming the first nation of the world to enact constitutional protections against discrimination toward the LGBTQI community. Unfortunately, the report notes that “the lack of political will to enforce the laws also has ripple effects across the [African] continent. South Africa refuses to integrate human rights into its foreign policy.”

Recent publicity (including international online petitions to the South African government) around horrific and increasing accounts of “corrective rape” of lesbians has shown that this protection has also yet to fully be enshrined in domestic policy.

So, pop quiz.

Now that you know about the complexities of gender and the widespread societal ignorance about them, what will you do to educate yourself and stop violence against those who don’t fit into society’s definition of mainstream?

This answer is up to you.

Elischia Fludd is the founder and executive director of EOTO World, an international organisation devoted to peace-building through education. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which brings fresh views to everyday news.




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