In The Interest of “Equality,” Malawian Woman’s Identity Is Erased

Audacia Ray

 
The mainstream media is notorious for misgendering trans people; when trans women are written about, they are described as being "men dressed as women" and referred to persistently as "he." And although many gay rights groups include the letter "T" in their acronyms and claim to be inclusive of diversity in gender identity, they don't hesitate to blatantly disregard gender identity when it serves their purpose of arguing for "equality" in the treatment of gays.

With the ongoing interest in Uganda’s state-sponsored homophobia and a bill in the country that would make homosexual acts punishable by death, there’s been more press than usual about sexuality throughout the African continent. Uganda has been getting most of the ink, but the fact remains that 37 countries in Africa have a variety of laws against homosexuality.

Early this week a story broke about a “gay male couple” in Malawi who have both been found guilty of “unnatural acts” and “gross indecency” and sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. This story has been in development since December, when Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were arrested in their home after a public engagement party celebrating their union.

Gay rights and human rights groups all over the world have issued statements condemning the Malawian court system and speaking out against punishing people for their sexual orientation.

The only problem with this, as the razor-sharp blog Questioning Transphobia pointed out yesterday, is that Tiwonge Chimbalanga identifies as female. Both the mainstream press and gay rights groups have consistently erased this fact from their statements. Several newspapers have quoted Tiwonge as saying, “I’d rather remain in prison than to be released into a world where I am kept away from Steven.” However Gender DynamiX, a South African organization that promotes freedom of expression of gender identity and advocates for the rights of transgender, transsexual, and gender non-conforming people, has the full quote: “I am just a woman who loves my man. I’d rather remain in prison than to be released into a world where I am kept away from Steven.”

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This video was filmed by Gender DynamiX this week at a protest this week in Cape Town, South Africa. In it, activists describe the scene and clearly state that Tiwonge is a transgender woman, not a gay man.

The New York Times, in an article they published in February about the case, gives a little context to her identity but then completely disregards it:

Tiwonge Chimbalanga looked like a man but said he was a woman. He helped with the cooking and dressed in feminine wraparound skirts. Steven Monjeza was a quiet, sullen man often intoxicated on sorghum beer. He said he had never been happy until he finally met the right companion.

The mainstream media is notorious for misgendering trans people; when trans women are written about, they are described as being “men dressed as women” and referred to persistently as “he.” And although many gay rights groups include the letter “T” in their acronyms and claim to be inclusive of diversity in gender identity, they don’t hesitate to blatantly disregard gender identity when it serves their purpose of arguing for “equality” in the treatment of gays.

This is a multilayered issue: clearly, trans and gay rights activists within Africa are identifying Tiwonge as a trans woman and see her conviction as transphobic state violence and injustice. However, mainstream international press and gay rights groups are coopting the story to fit into their concept of the fight for marriage equality. The resulting coverage both silences trans women and ignores the voices and identities of Africans.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Analysis LGBTQ

North Carolina’s Governor Is Missing the Point in the Fight Over the State’s Anti-Trans Law

Imani Gandy

If history is any indication, North Carolina very well may find itself on the losing end of this fight.

In what promises to be one of the most closely watched legal showdowns of the year, North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed dueling lawsuits against one another on Monday, each asking a federal court to determine the legality of the anti-trans bathroom discrimination provisions in the state’s recently enacted HB 2.

HB 2 is the grossly discriminatory law that overturns local anti-discrimination laws, bans cities or counties from setting a minimum wage for private employers, and mandates that access to restroom facilities in schools and publicly owned buildings be restricted to the gender on a person’s birth certificate. And even with the relative lack of legal precedent relating to trans people’s civil rights, if history is any indication, North Carolina very well may find itself on the losing end of this fight.

During a Monday press conference, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the DOJ would be filing a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction to block the bathroom discrimination provision of HB 2 and accused North Carolina of creating “state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security—a right taken for granted by most of us.”

Speaking directly to the transgender community, Lynch said, “[N]o matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

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The DOJ had previously given North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) the opportunity to avoid the expense and hassle of defending a lawsuit against the United States. Principal Deputy Assistant Vanita Gupta gave McCrory an ultimatum in a letter last week: Confirm that the state of North Carolina would not “comply with or implement” HB 2, or risk a civil rights lawsuit and a curtailment of the nearly $861 million in federal funds North Carolina receives annually. Gupta gave the state until this last Monday to think about it and to notify employees that, consistent with federal law, they are permitted access to bathrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identity.

McCrory responded by filing an utterly pointless lawsuit. North Carolina could have easily saved itself the cost of filing, told the DOJ that it would move ahead with HB 2, and just waited to be slapped with a lawsuit. The cases are going to be consolidated anyway. But wasting taxpayer dollars in the persistent effort to oppress marginalized people seems to be a favorite tactic among states with nothing better to do.

Instead of confirming that he would stop the campaign against trans people, McCrory sued the Obama administration in federal court in North Carolina for its “radical reinterpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which would prevent plaintiffs from protecting the bodily privacy rights of state employees while accommodating the needs of transgendered [sic] state employees.”

Title VII prohibits sex-based employment discrimination, among a number of other protections. According to the tortured analysis in McCrory’s complaint, the DOJ is “ignoring the bodily privacy” of state employees, particularly women and girls who, as a result of bathroom equality, could be vulnerable to assault by any sexual predator claiming to be a woman in order to gain easier access to their prey, despite the fact that there is not a single reported incident of a trans person assaulting anyone in a bathroom.

McCrory’s complaint cites a handful of cases out of the Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal, all of which stand for the proposition that Title VII doesn’t protect transgender people as transgender people per se, and that it doesn’t protect people with “sexual identity disorders.” And besides, McCrory argues, even if transgender employees are covered by Title VII, the statute doesn’t prohibit employers from balancing special circumstances they pose with “the right to bodily privacy held by non-transgender employees in the workplace.”

Even setting aside McCrory’s problematic intimation that transgender employees don’t have the same “right to bodily privacy” that cisgender employees do, McCrory’s complaint misses the point.

The issue is not discrimination against transgender people for being transgender people, but rather, as the DOJ pointed out in its letter to Gov. McCrory, the issue is that discrimination against transgender people is discrimination based upon sex, and discrimination based on sex is a violation of Title VII.

Citing the landmark decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Supreme Court made it clear that discrimination on the basis of “sex” includes differential treatment based on any “sex-based consideration,” the DOJ noted that federal courts and administrative agencies have applied Title VII to discrimination against transgender individuals based on sex, including gender identity.

In Hopkins, plaintiff Ann Hopkins said she had been denied a promotion at work because she was “too macho.” Her employer told her that she should wear makeup, style her hair, and act more feminine. Six members of the Supreme Court agreed that such comments were indicative of gender discrimination, and held that Title VII barred discrimination because of biological sex, but also barred gender stereotyping—discrimination based on someone failing to act and appear according to expectations defined by gender.

It makes sense that the same principle would apply to transgender people. Ann Hopkins was treated differently at work because she expressed her gender in a manner that did not conform to arbitrary societal standards. Similarly, transgender people who are prohibited from using the bathroom that conforms to their identity are being treated differently than cisgender people, because transgender people, as far as some of the courts are concerned, are not expressing their gender in a manner that parts of society deem suitable.

As the 11th Circuit noted in the 2011 case Glenn v. Brumby, “[a] person is defined as transgender precisely because of the perception that his or her behavior transgresses gender stereotypes. The very acts that define transgender people as transgender are those that contradict stereotypes of gender-appropriate appearance and behavior.”

If cisgender people can use facilities for people who share the biological gender with which they identify, then it is discriminatory to deny transgender people that same personal dignity. Full stop.

McCrory doesn’t seem to understand this and is stuck on the notion of “biological sex”: In his complaint, he protests that “North Carolina does not treat transgender employees differently from non-transgender employees. All state employees are required to use the bathroom and changing facilities assigned to persons of their same biological sex, regardless of gender identity, or transgender status.”

One can imagine making the same argument with respect to, say, racially segregated bathrooms: “All state employees are required to use the bathroom and changing facilities assigned to persons of their same race.”

And one hopes McCrory would agree that such an argument would fall flat on its face.

Ultimately, the fight between the United States and North Carolina is about more than just bathrooms. It’s also about conservative panic about the seeming cultural lawlessness of the Obama administration.

Conservative commentators are caterwauling that the Obama administration is rewriting Title VII and its sister act, Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972—which prohibits discrimination in schools—to advance a transgender agenda. They complain that transgender people are not a protected class under Title VII or Title IX, and that extending the anti-discrimination protections found in those statutes to transgender people requires Congress’ stamp of approval.

Notably, McCrory’s complaint is silent on Title IX, presumably because the Fourth Circuit (which is where North Carolina sits) announced last month that it would defer to the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines, which require schools that receive public funding to permit transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The Obama administration reaffirmed this guidance in a letter to public schools on Friday.

The primary complaint of McCrory and his cronies is that the Obama administration is redefining “sex,” and that the new definition far exceeds anything that Congress could have contemplated when it enacted the twin statutes in 1964 and 1972. McCrory’s complaint about the “radical reinterpretation” of Title VII underscores that point.

But that’s not necessarily true. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title VII under the Obama administration, isn’t redefining “sex” for purposes of the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII. Not really. Rather, the EEOC has given the term some context in light of Hopkins and similar cases, in which courts have recognized that sex discrimination includes gender stereotyping.

And the EEOC is well within its right to do so. In 1997’s Auer v. Robbins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal agencies are entitled to interpret their own regulations as they see fit, as long as their interpretation isn’t erroneous and doesn’t conflict with the plain language of the statute or regulation.

Assuming the North Carolina federal court follows the Auer rule, McCrory won’t have a legal leg to stand on.

McCrory will likely argue that Congress did not intend the term “sex” to mean anything other than “biological male” or “biological female.” But certainly the EEOC’s more expansive interpretation—that sex includes gender identity—is not contradicted by Title VII or by congressional intent. Indeed, the legislative history regarding Title VII is rather sparse because the prohibition against sex discrimination was a last-minute addition to its protections.

Title VII initially was conceived to prohibit racial discrimination in the workplace. Rep. Howard Smith (D-VA) introduced an amendment to add sex discrimination protections to Title VII a mere two days before the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on it. Smith, who was a vocal opponent of civil rights for Black people, was considered a staunch supporter of women’s rights. (How he felt about Black women—or whether he even knew that they existed—is anyone’s guess.) So any discussion of congressional intent with respect to sex discrimination and Title VII is going to be short-lived.

An argument could certainly be made that Congress was not contemplating that “sex” would mean anything other than “male or female” and that it didn’t intend sex discrimination to encompass gender identity when it passed the statute, but if there’s nothing in the legislative history, then who can tell?

Besides, as a wise man once said, “Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

That’s Justice Antonin Scalia writing the majority opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, a case involving male-on-male sexual harassment. Scalia noted that “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII.”

Almost assuredly, neither was transgender bathroom access, but that doesn’t mean denying transgender people the dignity of using a bathroom aligned with their gender identity is not a “principal evil” prime for redress under Title VII.

After all, if it’s good enough for Scalia, it should be good enough for Gov. McCrory.

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