The car drives by. A white man sticks his head out the window, holds his hands over his chest like breasts, and yells, “Ooh ga, ooh ga,” at my mom. There is not much I can do. Her Black body is so feminine, so sensual, so “thicc.” I see her reflected in me somehow; our bodies exude a definition of “woman,” one that I never agreed to. This body and this life, I never agreed to it.
Let me be clear that my parents love me. I am their second child, born six years after my older brother. My parents met at the University of Lesotho, located just outside the capital. Lesotho is a landlocked country, surrounded by South Africa. My father came by way of Uganda, a refugee. He connected with other Ugandans on campus and they threw parties and drank on weekends. My mother, from Lesotho, born and raised, was a commuter, picked up every day by her father after classes. She was much more introverted. My parents had every class together and became study buddies—my mother studying chemistry, and my father studying environmental engineering. Stories later, they had a son and got married after my father received a scholarship to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
I am a transgender, bisexual, non-binary person and I have never told my parents about my gender. I moved from Vancouver to Toronto because I wanted to be away from them. For years, I have used they and them pronouns and worn a binder when I wanted a moment of gender euphoria. I started to stand up for myself more and be more deliberate about who I hung out with; my life improved. I seek this euphoria throughout my life.
Let me be clear that my parents love me. Same-sex marriage is illegal in Lesotho. Statistics on gender inequality in the country are hard to find, so I look to the larger neighbour, South Africa, where same-sex marriage is legal. One in four men in South Africa reported having intercourse with a woman who did not consent. Half those men admitted to raping more than once. “Corrective” rape is rampant, committed predominantly by men firing their masculinity around to “correct” the sexualities of others. On average, 10 lesbians a week have been raped since 2000. This violence permeates beyond the lesbian community. Across the spectrums of gender, sexual orientation and asexuality, people have reported being sexually assaulted because of their identity. If that’s what is happening in the supposed “liberal” beacon of South Africa, then I can’t imagine what the reality is in Lesotho. I have not visited Lesotho since I was the ripe age of 10. I connect with cousins and relatives and “relatives” (friends of my parents) over Facebook and they supposedly see my gay ass life. They have not expressed any disapproval and I have yet to experience any difficult conversations with my parents. Overall, Lesotho is a place I want to connect back to—but it may never want to connect back to me.
Let me be clear that my father loves me. “Homosexual activities” are illegal in my father’s home country of Uganda. Activist Brian Wasswa was killed in October 2019 because of his sexuality. Pride in Uganda has been misrepresented in the media, canceled and brought back; it has incited violence. People believe that LGBTQ and intersex people are a threat to their society. Since 2014, there have been several attempts to further criminalize homosexuality. First there was a fine, then a seven-year prison sentence and, in 2019, the government announced it would reintroduce a bill that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality.
My father is the affable type and I believe I got all my extroverted traits from him. I cannot fathom what he would tell his friends about me. My most pressing fear is that they would say that I am “becoming a boy.” I have no foundation for this fear; I’ve never heard them talk badly about trans people. My fear is based more upon how my parents wholly embrace the gender binary. My mother often says that I “look good in skirts,” but look “manly” in pants. “Your body was made for skirts,” she says. And while I resent such comments, I do believe they come from the sweetest of places. One day when I was visiting, my father took me aside and asked if we could go on a family picnic. “You and Mom can talk about girl stuff,” he said. I was skeptical; my father and I have a fraught relationship. He loves an argument; I hate being yelled at (it just doesn’t work). But I realized that, to him, “girl stuff” really just meant emotions. So we discussed his depression, my triggers and his siblings (most of whom are deceased). It was a combination of revelatory moments that left me almost in tears.
I walk a twisted tightrope now. Gender theorist Judith Butler, in an essay discussing how people grossly misinterpreted her pioneering 1990 book, Gender Trouble, clarifies how gender is performative. “The question of subversion, of working the weakness in the norm, becomes a matter of inhabiting the practices of its rearticulation.” I interpret this as, “If you talk the talk, you better walk the walk.” Of course, it does go deeper than that. But Butler is addressing how the talk can be walked to create a new world. The “weakness,” the flaws in normal behaviour, become all the more evident when you live in the new world that you are trying to create.
Let me be clear that my parents love me, but I’m not sure they’ll love me now. Some argue that homosexuality is fundamentally un-African. Celebrated Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues that English is fundamentally un-African. He fights it. All his books are originally published in his first language, Kikuyu, and he urges other African writers to write and publish in their mother tongues. Gender and language are tightly knit. I bring this up to illustrate the linguistic struggle I am experiencing at this moment. I am working with English imports of words that my parents may never understand. However, my using they and them as my pronouns works weakness in their norms; I’m trying to build new words and worlds to inhabit. Worlds that have yet to be formed within society’s accepted norms of gender and language. I do not wish to undergo bottom surgery; I am neither man nor woman. I am the weakness, I embrace the weaknesses.
Think about the words “I am transgender.” They precede you. The “I” precedes you. Think of your name, the one given to you by your parents. Think about how you didn’t choose it. If you’re changing it, think of the ways that this new name precedes you. The people who call you by that name—think about how they love and respect you, or how they do not. The “I am” precedes you. “Transgender” is a term that precedes you, too. As in, it has a history, a life that precedes you.
Let me be clear that I love myself. This is a prelude to coming out. The white man in the car can catcall me and my mom and I can feel a sense of dread. Dominique “Remie” Fells can be murdered along with so many other trans women and I can feel an even stronger sense of responsibility. Medical intervention was always something on my mind and upon reading that surgeries and hormone treatments can be undertaken completely on my own terms, I feel that now is the time. I can no longer hide away. However large my parents’ expectations are of me, I want to become more myself. This is a prelude to the sacrifices that I must make in order to live as my fullest self. I came into the world with a history, the “I” in “I am Dede” preceded me. But I have the ability, the strength, to work weakness into the normative perceptions of a body like mine. I have the chance to make a new world.