She is a femme, a mother and a wife. So, to the Ethiopian eye, solidly heterosexual. I am the stereotypical woman “homosexual” – a lesbian whose gender expression veers towards the traditionally masculine, and for this exact reason, I did not think I would come back alive. The situation we were in was dangerous because the people in the area thought they knew everything about “homosexuality” and “666” – which apparently are the same thing. And I feared that by her very association with me – a woman who presents in a masculine manner – she too was doomed.
Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that we somehow physically survived it – I suppose the emotional turmoil will take a lot longer to heal. Would things have gone differently had I been “more like a woman”? I know for a fact that that would have made the experience less anxiety inducing for me. Gender is a binary proposition in Ethiopia and my bending and blurring of the strict lines of man and woman tends to make my life here complicated and, at times, risky.
I should not have to explain or defend the way I express my gender. This struggle to present myself as I am without apologies shapes the person that I am and continue to become.
Bathrooms and body searches are the bane of my daily existence in Ethiopia. I avoid public bathrooms because the negotiation that comes with using one is emotionally draining. “I am a woman” is a sentence that I have uttered politely, in anger, in complete frustration, in resignation and in disappointment. People’s inability to hear these words outside of their own imagination of what a woman must look like has often cost me my sanity. Despite learning how to shrink into myself to appear as non-threatening as possible, the simplest and most natural task of using a bathroom escalates into something that has the capacity to ruin my day. I have been told “You are in the wrong bathroom” more times that I can count and those words, in of themselves, don’t offend me. I can understand an honest mistake and would be likely to appreciate the effort at a correction if people were able to hear me when I plainly and simply state my gender. The need to follow me into the bathroom and the effort to get even more people to see me as I leave a public bathroom so that they too can participate in the gawking is both hurtful and exhausting and sometimes worth not going to bathrooms. Sadly, nothing that I do ensures a problem free experience as my experience is dependent on other people who can choose to react to my “I am a woman” in any way they choose.
Body searches sometimes start and end with snide and rude comments, arguments, stares and less often with unsolicited advice about “correcting” my ways. I have had a man accuse me of trying to “deceive” him even as I corrected him when he came to search me. I was once forced to stand outside a government office for an hour because I lost my patience over the male and female police officers who kept telling each other “You should do the search” even as I kept saying “I am a woman”. I had to stand outside until their commanding officer arrived and I was asked to apologize for the “inconvenience” that was created. I refused to apologize and told their commanding officer that his officers should be taught to listen. I stood my ground and was finally allowed in the building without an apology but I ended up wasting an hour while the police officers argued that it was my fault that they could not tell that I was a woman. I have had random but well meaning people who work as guards at body search stations tell me that I should not ruin “my beauty” by cutting my hair too short, by “dressing like a man” or by “walking like a man”. I should not have to explain or defend the way I express my gender. This struggle to present myself as I am without apologies shapes the person that I am and continue to become. Most people assume that I want to pass as a man and some men further assume that we can share a (false) sense of camaraderie based on the subjugation of other women. When I correct these assumptions and point that sexism and misogyny are not valuable values to hold on to even for men, the response is often some variation of “you can’t defend women because you don’t even really want to be a woman anyway”.
These random comments from random people are infuriating. Only a couple of weeks ago, I corrected a man who addressed me as “brother” and he simply refused to hear me. When I insisted, he said, “I find it difficult to call someone who looks like you a woman”. While my response – “Well, my gender has little to do with your comfort level” – was perhaps a fitting retort, his comments nevertheless ruined my coffee date with my sister. My sister and I spent the majority of our time together discussing the inability of most Ethiopians to reconsider the gender binary and the real consequence of this inability on those who do not fit that binary. We did not meet up to discuss gender or his insulting comments but it was yet another example of an external situation dictating my and, in this case, my sister’s actions.
While bathrooms, body searches and random comments are all frustrating they pale in comparison to some of the other consequences of being a masculine-presenting woman in Ethiopia.
Until about a few years ago, my gender bending and blurring was offensive for the mere fact that I played with the gender binary. Increasingly some people now connect my gender expression to my sexuality.
The most visible I ever felt as a dyke in Addis was while dating a butch woman. While her gender expression also veered towards the traditionally masculine, she was not mistaken for a man in the way that I was. When out in public spaces, the stares directed at us were more frequent and the confusion (and sometimes the disgust) more visible. She was an affectionate woman and her public displays of affection were not always edited and this resulted in a fear that we could be easily outed as queers. A friend was worried enough to point it out and it was hard having to recoil from the affection of a woman that I was dating. I could not help but compare how much easier dating a femme had felt and I remember missing that sense of not being on display that came from dating a femme.
Until about a few years ago, my gender bending and blurring was offensive for the mere fact that I played with the gender binary. Increasingly some people now connect my gender expression to my sexuality. Whereas I was just seen as a “tomboy” before, I now notice that more conversations lead into the “issue of homosexuality”. I have been subject to some unsolicited lectures about the destructive nature of “homosexuality”. My sibilings have had to find ways to defend me – without outing me – when asked about my sexuality by homophobes who assume my sibilings share these bigoted sentiments. Some people have told my sisters that they too have queer family members and oddly enough these conversations have come about without my sisters discussing my sexuality with them.
However, when it is open season against queers and people feel the particular need to openly and loudly express their homophobia, I feel like a walking target for a violence that feels ready to burst at any moment.
While I am grateful that my gender expression has enabled people to have a somewhat open conversation, it becomes problematic when the collective homophobia of Ethiopians reaches its predictable boiling point over an event or issue that they deem is an approval of LGBTQ people. An example of this madness was apparent when President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia a few years ago and people anticipated that he would publicly push for the queer rights of Ethiopians. During these times, I sense that I draw a few more menacing stares than usual. I am almost always stared at so the stares have gotten to a point where they almost do not bother me. However, when it is open season against queers and people feel the particular need to openly and loudly express their homophobia, I feel like a walking target for a violence that feels ready to burst at any moment. The stares scare me. I worry about where the stares and the anger that follows will lead. Would it result in a “corrective rape”, a mob justice situation or some other type of violence? Nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility during these charged times.
Oddly enough this sense of insecurity that comes from the sense of being a visible dyke was almost unthinkable a few years ago. The paradox for me is really this: In order for the climate for queers to improve there has to be a queer activism of some sort but yet the success of that activism places some of us as a clear and moving target. The only person more offensive than a female who “acts like a man” is perhaps a male “who acts like a woman”. Both are a threat to the very notion of Ethiopian masculinity. And thus those of us whose gender expressions and definitions do not fall into a restrictive and damaging binary are at the forefront of this cultural war. Unfortunately, our bodies are the literal battleground.
And yet we have to find a way to keep true to ourselves, even as we struggle to be who we are despite all the meanness and dangers around us.