Tiwonge and Steven got out of jail

And that’s the important thing…

And we bore witness in the rain, which is also quite important.

A lot of us made clear that we were not happy at the misgendering of Tiwonge by the main-stream press and by a lot of the gay men present. (I will say now that much of this post is going to be about the controversy, but we will get to that in a minute). In my own speech, which is not on the clip with me reading my poem, for no particularly sinister reason – it was rainy and confused – I said that this was a solidarity issue, a straight couple, one of them someone most of us regard as transgender in some sense, being punished under a colonial heterosexist homophobic law. It is not too difficult to see why we all need to be on side over this, irrespective of our differences about it. And that, in the end, is what I feel – two lovers were unjustly punished under an unjust and unconstitutional law. And have now been freed as a result of international pressure.

I’d like to spend this post being politely unhappy with one of the arguments in favour of misgendering Tiwonge that we are hearing from normally sensible people, but, in the interests of even-handedness, I have to express outrage with someone in our own community.

The problem is this: in her Facebook entry of 7.10 last night, Ashley Love said this:

The Advocate and Towle Road both tell the trans community to shut up and deal with their articles released today in which they falsely label Tiwonge a gay man, even though she indentifies as a woman. They do this only to promote gay marriage , which is not really a trans woman’s issue. This is a crime wi…thin itself: misgendering a trans woman just to advance the gay and lesbian only agenda, and censor any red headed step chid that wants to have their identities be respected.

(Incidentally, the Advoate now describes Tiwonge as a transgender woman – don’t have access to the earlier version, if any.)

I commented on Ashley’s entry that it was well out of order for her to say that same-sex marriage is not really a trans woman’s issue, because a lot of us idenify as queer, and want marriage equality thankyou very much. It is ironic that in a row about misgendering and disrespect and erasure, the needs of queer trans people are being shoved aside by other trans people.

Ashley chose, as is her right, to delete my comment; Bet Power told me – as if I didn’t know – that the L&G mainstream don’t care about trans marriage rights.

Gosh, anyone would think I hadn’t spent many long months on the Fucking committee that negotiated the GRC and thus marriage rights for straight-identified trans people, and had the awkward job of helping persuade my sisters and brothers not to throw trans queers under the bus, as they were minded to, mostly, I think, out of fear that the Government would have a fit of the vapours if it were acknowledged that some of us are lesbian and gay.

So, my point stands. And I repeat it. If Ashley Love wants to be taken seriously as a media advocate for the trans community as a whole, she had better respect the rights of the queer portion of it.

And apologize. And not start deleting when people call her on stuff.

OK – that’s almost by the by.

The real issue is that various anti-colonialist gay men are concerned that there is an intrinsic cultural imperialism involved in Western trans people adopting Tiwonge as trans. One of the more sensible versions of this position is Jim Burroway here though several of his commenters are not so nice or sensible and ocme up with some standard cisgay transphobic bullshit.

What Jim does not seem to get is this.

1. Transgender and trans (for short) are deliberately broad terms which include multiple identities from multiple cultures WHICH IS THE REASON WE STARTED USING THEM in the first place. We are not claiming that Tiwonge is neccessarily someone who desires hormones or surgery, or identifies with the ideas of Julia Serrano or Kate Bornstein. Just that she clearly identifies as female in spite of being male assigned at birth.We have known for the past twenty years and more that we need to be in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in other cultures and places, and that we need to be aware of how they experience reality and map that over our own perceptions and explore difference as well as likeness.

2. Sometimes if something walks like a duck, it is a duck even if it is a slightly different species of duck. And those of us who are ducks get to say to the chickens that she is a duck and not a fucking chicken…While all in fowl solidarity with each other over homophobic laws.
Do not tell us we are being imperialist for recognizing someone as our sister and being in solidarity with us – just, don’t.

3. Are we still going on with a crude social construction/biology dichotomy? Really? How about – let’s call it the possibility – that trans has a biological component or various components – and that people with that biology construct their identities differently in different cultures – a bit, because these days eg many hijras take hormones particularly the ones for whom the largely Hindu theology of the hijra community does not tally with their background entirely. Or so I am told.

Why do people think that pure social constructionism was ever any more of a good idea than crude biological essentialism? Haven’t we moved on and become a bit more supple in our reasoning?

Social constructionism has brought the trans community no end of grief, (coughJulie Bindelcough) and we are supposed to regard it as the fundamental principle of gay and feminist thought. Excuse me – we know a lot more than we did thirty years ago about how the mind works and how the narrative self operates and how this is not just the mind doing stuff, it is the brain and the limbic system doing stuff. And we are supposed to ignore that?

May I, politely, call bullshit on that?

I am a long way from being a biological determinist.Just, we actually know stuff about the brain and the nervous system that we didn’t know when I was a wee thing

Mental architecture does seem to be constructed bottom up rather than top down. It used to be thought that there was a simple self which had an unconscious Whereas increasingly looks like there is an unconscious which has a self. We are made up of modules which pretend to be a whole. A narrative self, a capacity to recognize things as parts of our bodies self
A remembering where you put the keys self.And somehow we have this top-dressing – not an illusion but a fragile superstructure – which acts as chairperson of a board.

And all of this takes place in the electrical signals of a physical brain which is the product of millions of years of evolution.

And somewhere in all of this, sexuality and gender come along in all their variety and splendour.

Faced with the wonderful toolbox of ideas that offers, do we really have to stick with a stick tab A into slot B social constructionism.


About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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17 Responses to Tiwonge and Steven got out of jail

  1. maellenkleth says:

    Thank you, Roz, for an excellent summary of the issues. Social constructionism is indeed one of the roots and sources of our collective maltreatment at the hands of the ‘mainstream’ (for whichever value of ‘mainstream’ one might care to use).

    Take good care,

    from the rainy western edge of the Elizabethan Empire

  2. auntysarah says:

    Utterly excellent points. Very well said!

  3. actionreplay says:

    I had not idea this was a trans couple. I am glad they are out of jail though.

    I have found btw that outside the West, conservative, homophobic, sex-negative cultures seem to be very tolerant of the notion of being trans – although only in the sense of one completely assuming all the aspects of the ‘opposite’ gender, with no genderqueerness at all.

  4. zoeimogen says:

    Well written, thank you.

    I’m trying to frame a complaint to the BBC – and other organisations, but I’ll start there, over the misgendering issue. Unfortunately I can’t find anything that would pass as a solid source saying that Tiwonge is indeed transgendered. Without a source, the complaint seems somewhat weak. (I’ve checked and Tiwonge is a male name in Malawi) Are you aware of anything I could use beyond the Gender DynamiX stuff? (Which seems to be the source everyone else has used)

    • jessie_c says:

      Questioning Transphobia ran two articles about the situation, both of which reveal Tiwonge’s trans/intersex status.

      Relevant quotes:
      She [businesswoman Flony Frank] then told the court that she discovered that [Tiwonge] has male genitals though they did no look normal to her…

      “I have male genitals, but inside I am a complete woman. Maybe I cannot give birth to a child, but I menstruate every month — or most months — and I can do any household chores a woman can do.”

      Note that the second quote ran in the New York Times last February. There’s no excuse for the misgendering.

      • zoeimogen says:

        The New York Times piece is exactly what I was after, thanks!

      • steepholm says:

        Except that it misgenders her as well, and “diagnoses” her menstruation as the hysterical fantasy of a gay man in denial…

      • zoeimogen says:

        FYI, here’s the text of the complaint I just sent in:

        I am writing to complain about your recent coverage of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. In none of your coverage have I seen mention of Tiwonge’s transgender status, even though this is on record with other news sources. (E.g. the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/world/africa/14malawi.html?pagewanted=2) Whilst I appreciate that Tiwonge’s situation may be hard to understand, shrouded as it is in the fog of foreign customs and having to reporting from a distance, it appears that the gay “equal marriage rights” agenda is being pushed, while ignoring the plight of transgender individuals worldwide. Surely, even in the limited space available in articles on the issue, this deserves at least some mention?

        I would be grateful if this could be corrected to some extent by at least mentioning Tiwonge’s transgender status and avoiding use of gendering terms. (The use of “they” in third person singular would work here)

      • steepholm says:

        PS Googling seems to indicate that it can be either. There’s a male musician of that name, but also females, as for example here. On the face of it, Tiwonge adopted a name that was flexible, as so many trans people do.

    • steepholm says:

      Can you say where you found out that Tiwonge is a male name in Malawi? I’ve heard the opposite – and the face that she was known as “Auntie Tiwo” would suggest otherwise, if weakly. But I’m not sure where to get reliable information on this.

  5. geekyisgood says:

    I tried raising the fact that transgender is an umbrella term in the comments on the Box Turtle Bulletin piece (although not as articulately as you’ve done here) but Jim clearly hasn’t got the point.

    I’m horribly ignorant on cultural matters and how they relate to gender identity but this does look terribly like people are using anti-colonialism as a way of reinforcing their biases in a way that really isn’t justified. There’s allowing for differences, and then there’s forcing an argument to defend your prejudiced viewpoint. C’mon – Tiwonge has said “inside I am a complete woman” – how much clearer can her self-identification get?

  6. Anonymous says:

    From Natacha

    Hi Roz,

    A very good post. I have been very pissed off and angry about the way Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s identity has been appropriated by those who are not trans or ignored by the media. Transgender people are people FFS!

    Secondly I am glad you have talked about going beyond the essentialism/social constructionism debate. I think this is the result of a lot of hot air and confusion. Looking at trans from a point of view of natural diversity is, I believe, the only way to account for our existence and explains the range of different gender identities and manifestations of gender identity which would allow Tiwonge to call herself trans in the same way that you or Jameson Green are trans. OK so that throws into question cisgender identities, but this shows that there are many advantages of thinking this way…


  7. maboo says:

    Hi Roz,

    I’m sorry this is off topic – would you be able to suggest a few good support sites/sources for someone who posts to another board I’m on? They have a friend who is going through a trans/gender ID situation and really want to understand it better and have asked for advice/tips on how to continue being a supportive friend. Would it be OK to email you the text of their message or message it to you on here, rather than post it here? I’m sure they’d really appreciate any pointers/tips you may be able to offer.


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