Source: Own work by Neo Musangi. Title: Manpower, installation
I begin my interview with trepidation. In my experience in India, trans, gender non-conforming, non binary and intersex people are wary of knowledge projects, and with good reason. There is a history of epistemic violence here – of being surveyed, written about and made into metaphors around fluidity of gender (and even sexuality) with a bare minimum of participation from those who are gender non-conforming, non binary, trans or intersex.
Namita: “I guess its the way things are framed and this is always periphery from the center, or from the margins.”
Neo Musangi: “Or, we are a footnote...
Neo continues to say – "I particularly have had a lot of issues with academia.” I ask if this is because bodies are always centred in any conversation about transgender, non binary or gender non-conforming people. And Neo says, “Yes that too. I don’t mind doing something more general, but I just refuse to share my personal story in academic spaces.”
Neo Musangi is a performing and visual artist, academic and researcher. They are non-binary (preferred pronouns: they and them). In this interview Neo talks about various things - sexuality and gender based groups, the women’s movement and feminism, the role of visual and performing art and their disgruntlement with academia, being openly and publicly non binary – both online and offline. Here are some snapshots from our conversation.
While talking, Neo shared an incident that took place in March 2017 when they had been invited to curate for a popular hashtag/account CurateKE (#CurateKE). But what initially sounded like fun and even an opportunity to educate fell into disarray.
As I talk, Neo is silently scrolling through their phone. They are looking for screenshots of how they were attacked on Twitter particularly for being outspoken as a non-binary person.
These are some of the tweets that Neo showed me.
You are neither male, nor a female person. You are an ‘it’. ‘It’ is not human.
And another that says – In our society we fought homosexuals, lesbians, transgender. We shunned them and we’re coming for you.
The truth cannot be denied. Some facts are essential for our existence.
Calling you a person is a compliment.
Neo then says that parts of the conversation were not so bad.
“But there was also one troll. This guy decided that basically I am a gay man, and this was not about gender, and I was making it about gender.
You must be gay, you say its about gender because you fear hostility.
We are coming for you.
I blame white people for your existence.
Don't you have anything better to do – like you should die.
“All of this stuff got a lot of attention, retweets. There were even memes created.”
You are fake news. You are corrupting our Kenyan family values.
Then here’s another one – Mahatma Bhangi (Mahtama of Marijuana): So you’re pretending to be liberated while denying you are either M or F. The rest of your story is a side show. You are just looking for attention.
You are saying what we studied at school about human anatomy is wrong.
Neo Musangi: I feel that gender queer identity stretches everything further than is acceptable in our country.
Namita:Does this happen to other people that you know of?
Neo Musangi: I don’t think it has happened to any other ‘LGBTI’ person that I know of, at least in Kenya. (This acronym makes me uncomfortable. I like to use it in quotes. Actually, I always use it in quotes.) Since March that account is not active – people want to know what happened to that account. And then someone else tweets since that ‘gay person’.
Namita: Do you think you got attacked because there are not that many gender non-conforming people who are visible online in Kenya?
Neo Musangi: You know for the longest time I believed I was the only ‘gender non-conforming’ person in Kenya.. (laughs).
Namita: There’s no traditional community...?
Neo Musangi: This is the thing. Like India has hijras. People do exist but there is no language for us. I had one person approach me and say, "All my life I’ve been trying to fit myself into gender roles, and that’s not working." And that's true for me too. Now I think I know what I am because the information is available.
But yeah, you could be non binary. That is a useful category to be out there. We do keep making fun of this small number ... but we are 4 now, publicly.
Two of us still move in lesbian spaces, or trans spaces. In Kenya it's not a thing on its own – to be gender non-conforming. People vaguely know what you mean when you say transgender, or say gay, lesbian, bisexual. But when you say non binary or gender non-conforming its like – whatever.
People vaguely know what you mean when you say transgender, or say gay, lesbian, bisexual. But when you say non binary or gender non-conforming its like - whatever.
Speaking personally being non binary is so easy to dismiss. In the Kenyan context the conversation on intersex persons is quite progressive. But it's also a conversation on sex and not gender, it’s seen as something biological and there’s nothing a person can do. But non binary – it is like you just want attention, or that you’re just transgender. It is dismissed.
It's not just society at large but even in transgender spaces or academic research also. When people acknowledge non binary people, it is a footnote, and then they go on to speak about men and women.
I go to spaces for trans and gender non-conforming people. Speeches will begin – “my sisters and brothers” – and when you raise this, you look petty. Or even “ladies and gentlemen”. Right now non binary people – is just something that is thrown into the soup because it's not okay to not mention us. But I don’t think there is any effort taken or research done.
Namita: And what about online spaces?
Neo Musangi: My experience in curating CurateKE – a lot of people did not know what to do with me. This is not to say that others won’t be attacked. If it was a trans woman they would just repeatedly say – you are a man, you are a man, a man. And they would talk about genitals. Because they know clearly what it is. For instance, some of the responses I got were – Are you transgender? Just tell us you are!
So a lot of non binary people online look like frauds, and there is a serious effort to make it look like non binary is a cover for something else, as if non-binary is a safe zone. Maybe we’re being mysterious (smiles).
Those attacks constantly remind me that ‘you are not real’, in a way that doesn't have any substance that I could use to figure out my own life. Not to say that people online are there to help you figure out your own shit. They are just telling you off – but they are doing it in a way that you are not sure what you are dealing with. And it's confusing because I did start doubting myself, and asking – what am I. I’ve had these conversations with myself. By self identifying I would be getting to a point where I am saying – actually I think I am this, and then someone comes and says or does something. And I have to start afresh.
Those attacks constantly remind me that ‘you are not real’, in a way that doesn't have any substance that I could use to figure out my own life.
Generally speaking about the online or technology sphere in the global north, more and more non binary people are getting attention, even with the small things. Like an article about 10 things to not say to a non binary person on Buzzfeed or somewhere else. In the global south and in Kenya or my context, I keep equating it to how when HIV first hit the African continent – we ignored it because we were dealing with malaria. For non binary people – its like we just got to understand transgender so not this, we will come to you eventually. What we are hearing is this – We will talk about this once we are done with more serious issues, and you are only a few...
Performance by Neo Musangi
Namita: What about the rifts within the sexuality movement – within LGBTQI. And what about conversations with the women’s movement and the feminist movement – what are those conversations like?
Neo Musangi: Gender is so important with the trans movement, for trans women it is important to be a woman and perform femininity. And for a trans man it is important to be a macho guy – you don’t do things that are feminine, use hand gestures too much because that looks feminine. And I understand people have fears, and they don’t want to be read as a woman.
So then as a non binary person who is a little trans masculine, because also I’m not consistent but I present mostly as masculine – its difficult to deal with how I am read by the transgender men. They mostly read me as a transgender man who doesn’t want to transition medically: ‘I’m going through a phase and eventually I will decide’. And with transgender women, at least one who is very well known in our circles, just said I’m a homosexual: Just stop this non binary nonsense.
I’m only an expert on my own experience.
I don’t just take these things and so we do talk. I’m only an expert on my own experience. In these spaces none of us know what each of us is feeling or thinking. I work more with trans people and I think I belong there, but how important the binary is to them – I still don’t fit in that.
Then with the lesbian and gay, bisexual community – there is a clear rift between those two. The context of this country is somewhat more lenient towards those who are transgender than those who are LGB. Homosexual is just disgusting; with others, with intersex it is that it can be corrected and even with transgender people, the discourse is not as moral. The understanding is that such people are uncomfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth – but there is still a layer here that separates them from being just plain immoral, as homosexuality is perceived in Kenya. With trans people also if you present as who you are then chances of being singled out are less.
I use homosexual because the Kenyan government likes to use homosexual a lot. You don’t want to be mistaken for a homosexual.
I use homosexual because the Kenyan government likes to use homosexual a lot. You don’t want to be mistaken for a homosexual. If I am a trans woman and I’m walking the street, I don’t want people to think I am a feminine gay man.
In terms of the movement itself and the distancing between the transgender community and the LGB community – it emanates from the funding environment – and that's really unfortunate but true. 'LGBTI' organisations multiply but they don’t do any work with trans or intersex people, so trans and intersex people are saying NO, we are separate. Do your own work and don’t include us in your umbrella.
STOP using our letters! Leave the TI. (laughs)
The distancing from the transgender community and the LGB community emanates from the funding environment - and that's really unfortunate but true. LGBTI organisations multiply but they don’t do any work with trans or intersex people, so trans and intersex people are saying NO, we are separate.
This separation within the community has taken place, and there is a lack of effort to understand each other.
Namita: This sounds so familiar, it is the same in India.
Neo Musangi: At a collective level people are not making an effort because they are angry. They are not making an effort to figure out what transgender people are about, what their issues are. You guys want to stay on your own, that’s fine.
And because of that lack of information and understanding with the LGB community, I don’t feel safe there. Not sure if I feel safe anywhere, but particularly I don’t feel safe with people who don’t want to try, are unable to do a gender analysis of even sexuality.
Namita: And what about connecting to the women’s movement and feminist movement?
Neo Musangi: With the more conventional women’s rights groups, I just don’t try. I am an ally, my heart is with the women. Kind of ..’naturally’ .. though I don’t want to say that word. But I am in solidarity with women and even women’s rights people. But there is a particular way in which across Africa, the way the women’s rights discourse is constructed is very mainstream, patriarchal and conventional even. It is around motherhood, mortality (female) and those things are important, but the failure to go beyond that frame shows that there’s no space for a lot of other people, or for someone like me. To turn up in these spaces you have to dress properly, look appropriate, be a respectable woman, and that is not possible. These are the kind of people who can speak to the President, and I cannot do that. So I just don’t even try.
Across Africa, the way the women’s rights discourse is constructed is very mainstream, patriarchal and conventional even. It is around motherhood, mortality (female) and those things are important, but the failure to go beyond that frame shows that there’s no space for a lot of other people, or for someone like me.
With the feminists, well today has been a tough day with feminists, with a lot of disappointment.(smiles) But I have individual feminist friends, I did circulate in those circles for a while, but now feminism and self-naming as a feminist is a doing word – it means action. You don’t just speak feminism.
Namita: So you’re saying that the separation of gender and sexuality is not a great idea, even though organising around this seems to be splitting in many parts of the world?
Neo Musangi: Well, in Kenya there is an insistence on separating gender and sexuality and I think that is harmful even. It doesn’t do either any service, or make space for a productive understanding. So sexuality is LGB and gender is TI. And they just don’t take into account that the attraction for trans men doesn’t have to be to someone who is feminine. Most trans men will find cis gender hyper feminine women – but that is fucked up and its too much pressure.
So sexuality is LGB and gender is TI. I feel we don’t have to necessarily work together though that would be great, but there has to be something we can do without damaging each other.
I feel we don’t have to necessarily work together though that would be great, but there has to be something we can do without damaging each other. We need to make the effort, to make our lives more livable. To free yourself. It's important to pay attention to how even as you struggle with your own gender identities, you are so bound by gender in ways that you are not paying attention to, and especially in ways that are really to do with your sexuality.
Four or five years ago, I may have defined myself as heterosexual, but it's okay also to be an asexual being. We don’t have to use such strict oppressive ways, like these are the steps to being a transgender man and we all know these steps – If you are unfortunate, then you have a few years of being a butch lesbian, then you discover you are trans, then you identify yourself as a trans man, do what you need to do medically, finally you are a man, and then you find a girlfriend – who is not just any girlfriend, but a template of a cis gender hyper feminine woman. And I want to say to them – but guys, we are here to destroy the template. Because it is oppressive.
And if you have other desires, you keep them secret because you can’t tell your fellow trans people. We are creating more barriers.
Performance by Neo Musangi
Neo Musangi: That’s cool
Namita: She's also written a lot about what I would like to ask you about as well. About how she found both a sense of both community and an exploration of gender and sexuality online, through spaces like Second Life, blogs and other stuff.
Neo Musangi: That is very important. The language I use to talk about myself and to explain myself – it's very internet based. There was no way that language was going to get to me somewhere in Kenya. It wasn’t easy to find the words – its not everyday language to say "I’m non binary". Or "I’m gender non-conforming", or "I'm gender queer". You start from a place of, "I don’t know what the fuck is going on with me, I’m so confused, and I’m the only one who is like this". That is the usual story, and then you go online – and you find someone else, others.
The language I use to talk about myself and to explain myself - it's very internet based. Gender queer. Non binary. Gender non-conforming. There was no way that language was going to get to me, somewhere in Kenya.
Gender non-conforming and intersex people – the larger community – I like to give credit to them for the kind of work they’ve done and the information they’ve made available. People do blogs of their transition, and I am amazed that they are putting it out there. And once you discover this – it makes a difference even if you don’t reach those people directly, because that is what you sift through and search for – for other people's journeys, what they are and how they became, how their depression got better. You no longer feel so alone especially if you are not in a more located or physical community.
People do blogs of their transition, and I am amazed that they are putting it out there. And once you discover this - it makes a difference even if you don’t reach those people directly, because that is what you sift through and search for - for other people's journeys, what they are and how they became, how their depression got better.
The internet is important for me in those ways.
I started feeling like I was such an outlier, maybe a non binary non binary, or just too extreme. Especially when I got conflicted about sexuality.
So I went online. And I found people who were saying its okay to be attracted to cis gender men. Big deal! It's really been helpful. Not so much because I need to locate myself within something, but because it is helping me deal with the fact that I’m not wrong. I’m attending to how I feel. I am trying to live honestly, and I’m not deliberately being a different person, or postmodern or something.
I’m attending to how I feel. I am trying to live honestly, and I’m not deliberating being a different person, or postmodern or something.
There are these cool people that I’ve met by finding them online and yes they are my online community. To put it quite plainly, it saved my life.
It’s a real community,not an imagined one. You meet people online, they become real people, they become your support group. But there is still that element that this is from an American context – so the element of me being a fraud emerges. Even if it is a person of colour. That is America, and not Kenya. And America is where you go if you have no morals.
Performance by Neo Musangi
Namita: What about your performances and art – do you share that online?
Neo Musangi: Almost all my performance work is about gender and sexuality. And I don't do much work in gallery spaces. I do mostly public interventions, because that's where my target is. In a gallery space you know each other. So public interventions are a bigger risk, because you don’t know what will happen. But that is where I find more strength to do what I want, to communicate what I want. Because on Twitter or elsewhere the same people would attack me, but in this kind of performance I am here, I am present, I am occupying this space and claiming it. My performance is very much informed by me. Things that I don’t think I talk about or want to talk about ... that is what is there in my performances.
I am present, I am occupying this space and claiming it. My performance is very much informed by me. Things that I don’t think I talk about or want to talk about ... that is what is there in my performances.
There are two online and if you understood Swahili you could hear the comments. When I’m performing I can’t hear what people are saying, I only hear that later. People are saying – we should strip this person, what are they?
The first performance I did was about a street I was walking on and I got attacked – because they wanted to strip me to see if I was a man or woman, and I was just walking. For about 3 months I couldn’t go or walk there. Eventually I thought, "I live here, this is a main street in the city – and I can’t keep navigating around it or taking a cab. I need to claim the space". So I went there and I re-enacted. At the same time what I’m doing is not to preempt something from happening.
My point was to make it as boring and repetitive as possible, not exciting at all – I’m actually a really boring person, I don’t know why I draw attention to myself (laughs). The idea of the performance was - I’m going to bore you to death. I keep stripping, because you/people wanted to see what I am. I don’t get naked naked. Just undressing, undressing, undressing. This was near a public monument where lots of guys are sitting around.
I was present, and in a public space.
Namita: That’s sounds like a very brave performance to do.
Thank you Neo for sharing with us.