Where’s your umbrella?


Finding myself at the crossroads of emergent disciplines and schools of thought that do not as yet have a defined place within the South African, or African, academy, I have not had an academic home—in the sense of a distinct disciplinary space—that I felt I could turn to during much of my doctorate.

Keguro Macharia has touched on this concern in relation to his own work, noting the lack, for instance, of queer studies programmes across Africa. In a similar vein, I have found myself at the border of transgender studies, utilising the methodologies central to that discipline while anxious about its epistemological shortfalls and implied white Western concerns, and at the same time looking to the emergence of queer African studies with tentative hope and wondering whether indeed there is something to be offered there. Transgender studies and queer studies, in the Global North, have an intimate historical relationship to each another—a sharing of borders, bodies, methodologies and homes. In essence I have wondered what the space of the transgender within queer African studies might be, given “queers’” chequered history with the transgender subject. (Most often here there is concern over both queers’ erasure of the lived experience of transgender people and the conflation of transgender and queer, which together make certain transgender subjectivities that do not identify with queer invisible.) More crucially to this paper, though, I have wondered what the space of “Africa” within transgender studies might be.

Transgender studies is a newly emergent interdisciplinary field that holds as its central tenet “the challenges by gender-nonconforming people to traditional gender normativities”. Transgender studies draws on tools, both theoretical and methodological, situated in various disciplinary locations. Its primary imperative, according to Susan Stryker, is to “critique . . . the conditions that cause transgender phenomena to stand out in the first place, and that allow gender normativity to disappear into the unanalysed, ambient back-ground.”

Methodologically, then, the approach of transgender studies, as Karl Bryant explains, can broadly be described as twofold: first, “theorisations of transgender subjectivity, ethnographic exploration of transgender lived realities, close readings and critiques of existing knowledge about transgender people”, and, second, “the excavation and reconstruction of transgender histories”. Ultimately, though, the field’s focus is on producing knowledge that is beneficial to transgender people; it is not interested in what has historically been the framing of gender-non-conforming behaviour as a type of pathological maladjustment to be studied as an object.

Using transgender as an anchor, my doctorate tracks gender transgressions, suppressions and, in very rare moments, radicalisms that have coruscated across the history of the South African biopolitical state: disruptions of administrative and bureaucratic logic that have historically been curtailed through legislative interweavings of gender, sex and sexuality. In doing so, the project has sought to understand the complex emergence of transgender as both a discourse and a politics, and how it has facilitated the movement, identity and imaginary of individuals experiencing various levels of persecution due to their perceived gender transgressions in several countries across the Africa continent.

My thesis draws on life-story interviews carried out between 2012 and 2015 with transgender asylum seekers living in South Africa. It explores how, when and under what circumstances transgender-identified individuals from countries in Africa are made to journey and forced to seek refuge not just “elsewhere” but in South Africa specifically, and what role transgender plays in relation to this dynamic.

This paper is drawn, in part, from the problematic methodological encounters I experienced while undertaking fieldwork, and my discovery that although the relatively new discipline of transgender studies offers critical tools for this kind of project it also presents several shortcomings. Most of these shortcomings are, to my mind, rooted in the field’s implicit assumptions regarding the subject—usually white and Western in origin—and its leaning towards imposed meaning—an underlying universality and linearity in narrative. In fact, in much of its current iteration, the field lacks the ability, I believe, to allow for the specific nuances of transgender as an optic, an analytic, an archive or, at the very least, a subjective lived experience emanating from the African continent.

The decolonial analytic, writes Walter Mignolo, “is always attentive to the colonial aesthetics and epistemic differences and to the need to delink, to think in terms of options rather than presupposing one single option (universal).” Drawing on the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, this paper will highlight some of the more nuanced decolonial epistemologies that have influenced my thinking and helped me address some of what I consider to be the drawbacks of transgender studies when it comes to work coming from the African continent and other related ethical quandaries. Anzaldúa’s work—which involves theorising borderlands and borderland existence—has been a cornerstone of transgender studies, as evinced most clearly by Sandy Stone’s seminal essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”, an essay considered to be foundational to the emergence of transgender studies. I argue that transgender studies may need to return to some of the work that informed its genesis—in particular, Anzaldúa’s border epistemology and her notions of hybridity—if it is to be useful to African scholars.


“Transgender” is a term within the Global North often ascribed “no fixed meaning” or defined as “an umbrella”—a term meant to encapsulate a wide variation of gender expressions and identities. Susan Stryker, for example, uses “transgender”

not to refer to one particular identity or way of being embodied but rather as an umbrella term for a wide variety of bodily effects that disrupt or denaturalise heteronormatively constructed linkages between an individual’s anatomy at birth, a non-consensually assigned gender category, psychical identifications with sexed body images and/or gendered subject positions, and the performance of specifically gendered social, sexual, or kinship functions.

The notion of a number of identities falling within a singular, overarching category gives the term a certain mobility, but it also imbues it with a distinctive, often highly confusing, politics. Indeed, the term “transgender”, within its Global Northern origination, is highly contested in both its popular and academic uses. On the one hand, it has been claimed by the academy as immutable evidence for all arguments suggesting that gender, sex and sexuality are not self-fulfilling prophecies—that not all roads lead to heteronormative or heterosexual desire. On the other hand, beyond the academy, “transgender” has become a critical organising tool, but it has also come to signify a specific relationship to, or understanding of, gender identity: generally encompassed by a linearity of movement that positions the unambiguously gendered body as the telos of trans trajectories. This understanding of gender identity is more colloquially framed as the “wrong body narrative”.

Within Western transgender production, the story often told is that of a metaphorical crossing, with gender mobilised as a category separate from sex. Jay Prosser, in his 1998 book Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality, explains this crossing as the “trans” trajectory. Narrative production has largely established the process of passing into properly gendered identity as something akin to coming home, an articulation of a “linear progression towards the ultimate goal of belonging”. Aren Z Aizura adds that the journey towards this home is circumscribed by the notions of “from” and “to”, denoting a one-way trajectory from one end of dichotomous existence to the other, “divided by the border or no man’s land in-between”. Though Prosser was addressing transsexuality and the narrative of being “trapped in the wrong body”, the nineties emergence of transgender —the “beyond the binary model” that eschewed the medicalised notions of binary existence visible in transsexual diagnosis—has led to an overlapping of the two concepts. This overlap, in turn, has meant that much of what the “trans trajectory” stands for has come to be represented by notions of transgender rooted in the Global North.

Martin Manalansan has asked whether it is possible for us to think of gender as separate from sex or sexuality. Gayle Rubin asserts that indeed we can, and we must: “[T]he cultural fusion of gender with sexuality has given rise to the idea that a theory of sexuality may be derived directly out of a theory of gender”. She stresses that gender and sexuality are not the same thing, and that they form the basis of two distinct arenas of social practice. For Surya Monro and Lorna Warren, gender demands a separate analytical and conceptual path that nonetheless maintains a critical dialogue with sex and sexuality.

A shift in the way sex and sexuality are theorised started in the sixties, as Steven Epstein has proposed, with the idea that “sexual meanings, identities, and categories were intersubjectively negotiated social and historical products . . . that sexuality was, in a word, constructed”. In relation to this shift, there was a concomitant, though less widely expounded, shift in understandings of gender. Writers such as Harold Garfinkel, Suzanne J Kessler and Wendy McKenna, in looking at transsexuality, began to question the nature of gender and its own social construction. Their work built on the historical psycho-medical understanding of transsexuality already visible in the work of Havelock Ellis, Harry Benjamin, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, John Money and Magnus Hirschfeld. Havelock Ellis in particular was one of the key influences in the conceptions of gender in relation to sexuality that emerged in South Africa.

The theoretical discourse of transgender emerged out of this body of work, with pioneering theorists such as Sandy Stone, Kate Bornstein, Judith Halberstam and Jason Cromwell disputing any essential connection between sex (at the level of the physical body) and gender. They argued that gender is embodied and lived out in far more complex and mutable ways than conventional models, across disciplines, suggest. But contrasting and often conflicting disciplinary and theoretical frameworks surround understandings of transgender in the Global North. At the heart of the issue, transgender individuals seem to be perceived as either reinforcing hegemonic gender identities or destabilising those categories altogether. Arguably, since the publication of Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaws, a number of feminist, queer and transgender theorists have come to champion certain expressions of trans for their transgressive value. Transgender lives, as Patricia Elliot notes, have come to be celebrated for their seeming ability to represent “implicit, or better, explicit” critiques of the heterosexist gender order. Trans theory is attractive because it calls into question the socially mandated and rigidly policed belief that there is such a thing as gender-appropriate behaviour. But many others, transgender people and theorists alike, have come to read this celebration as a devaluation of their lives and work. For embedded in this celebration is often “a homogenous conceptualisation of trans”, particularly in the fields of feminism, sociology and queer theory.

Queer theory has garnered much from the transgender questioning of the supposedly stable relationship between sex, gender, sexual practice and sexual desire. In doing so, it has challenged the correspondence between desires, identities and practices, and allowed for the disruption of both heterosexuality and homosexuality. Judith Butler in particular has been critiqued for her use of transgender, which many argue has valorised certain versions of transgender expression while disparaging others. Butler’s major contribution to gender and queer studies has been the argument that all gender is performative: “man” and “woman” are not internal essences but rather identities constituted through the repetition of culturally acceptable acts that signal their presence. For Butler, “woman” does not necessarily have to be the cultural construction of the female body, and “man” need not designate male bodies. Gender, she writes, is “a set of repeated acts with a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being”. The biologically sexed body guarantees nothing, according to Butler; it provides the grounds for the act of speaking, but it has no deterministic relationship to gender. Instead, “‘becoming’ a gender is a laborious process of becoming naturalized, which requires a differentiation of bodily pleasures and parts on the basis of gendered meanings”. Stryker explains that Butler uses the performative as a type of speech act. A performative, she writes,

is a form of utterance that does not describe or report, and thus cannot be true or false. It is, or is part of, the doing of the action itself . . . to say that gender is a performative speech act is to say that it does not need a material referent to be meaningful, is directed at others in an attempt to communicate, is not subject to falsification or verification, and is accomplished by “doing” something rather than “being” something.

Butler, of course, was not suggesting that gender is simply performance in the theatrical sense, and by extension not real or not experienced as real. But the problem with Gender Trouble was that in its theorising of performativity and a separation between gender and sex it also produced, as Prosser argues, an “implicit equivalence of transgender and homosexuality, so that transgender appears as a sign of homosexuality, homosexuality’s definitive gender style”. David Valentine notes that, in contemporary scholarship, separation is key to understanding transgender and homosexual identities as emanating from distinct ontological sources: transgender identity from gender and homosexual or heterosexual identity from sexuality. As a corollary, he notes that scholars should be wary of reinstating binary systems (i.e. homosexual/heterosexual, gender/ sexuality), since “things are not always so clear cut”. Rubin’s earlier call for an analytic distinction between sex and gender was echoed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her book Epistemology of the Closet, in which she argues that “gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being [as] distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race. Distinct, that is to say, no more than minimally, but nonetheless useful”. Following from this general argument for their separation, Rubin later added in an interview with Butler that separation is not enough. Gender, sex and sexuality are not universal in the way they are understood or lived. Rubin stresses that the relationships between these spheres of identity and experience “are situational, not universal, and must be determined in particular situations”.

Echoing the sentiment that the relationships between sex, gender and sexuality have to be geopolitically situated, Talia Mae Bettcher, drawing on Maria Lugones, argues that there is no guarantee that English terms for gender will maintain or retain their English meaning. The possibility of terms resisting their English linguistic dominance is opened up when the geo- and body politics of spaces of hybridity come into contact with them. Moreover, in line with this paper’s key argument about the very situated meaning of transgender identity, Trish Salah has argued, echoing Gayatri Spivak, that subaltern transgender positions

appear at the interstice of transnational sexualities and genders, modernisation and globalisation, and through the networks of global gay human rights discourse and Anglo-American transgender liberation. How these English language forms encounter, appropriate, or are translated by globally local ‘‘trans’’ constituencies raises questions of the political economy of identity movements and discourses.


Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle’s publication in 2006 of the first edition of the Transgender Studies Reader gave a name (and perhaps even a home) to several clusters of theoretical work that have fundamentally influenced a variety of disciplines since the nineties, gender studies and queer studies among them. In Stryker’s introduction to the reader, she offers a clear outline of some of the key methodological tenants of the emergent field of “transgender studies”: namely, genealogy (often seen as the exploration of transgender phenomena) and the centrality of the lived transgender experience and embodiment. For Stryker it is critical that the “embodied experience of the speaking subject” work alongside, but also act as a defining boundary of, the analysis of transgender phenomena. In essence, “transgender studies considers the embodied experience of the speaking subject, who claims constative knowledge of the referent topic, to be a proper—indeed essential—component of the analysis of transgender phenomena”.

In terms of genealogy, bodies only become visible, and by extension disciplined and governable, in their naming, but the meaning of this naming is not fixed: rather it is situated within specific networks of knowledge and power. A positivist history would assume that transgender people had existed throughout time and would attempt to claim those who had previously been misidentified. Genealogy instead suggests that this misidentification is due not simply to an incomplete history but rather to the historic variability of categories that have organised, and continue to organise, our understanding of identities and bodies. For Foucault, discourse is generative. Forms of subjectivity—for instance, “to be transgender”—are intimately connected to discourse. Genealogy, according to Foucault, does not enquire into the timeless conditions that have endured in the subject throughout history but rather examines “the constitution of the subject across history which has led us up to the modern concept of the self”. Within transgender studies, the useful grouping of “transgender phenomena” provides a platform from which to undertake a context-specific genealogy that is aware of location—particularly, location outside the Global North.

K J Rawson notes that transgender phenomena “involve both a material dimension (the collecting, maintaining, and accessing of transgender historical materials in a physical repository) and a theoretical dimension (the power dynamics, political motives, epistemological function, and affective currents of any archival project)”. These material archives do not present transgender phenomena in any overt way; instead, the onus is on the researcher to tease these out, finding “choices, accidents and circumstances precipitating their creation”. The bulk of the physical repository addressing genders and sexualities considered “non-normative” in South Africa can be accessed at the Memory in Action Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA), although the advent of the digital age means that a substantial segment of these archives can now also be found in online blogs and news repositories and across social media.

Established in 1997, GALA, in its original iteration, was founded to address the absence of gay and lesbian existence and experiences within the South African historical landscape. Graham Reid notes the following in relation to the traces of gay and lesbian lives within African archives: “[E]choes of gay and lesbian lives are to be found in legal records, in police and military archives, in church commission reports, and in the records of psychiatric and social welfare departments”. Macharia wonders about these archival echoes and who might be haunting them. In his work, he offers one of the first discussions about the relationship between archive use and intellectual production within African queer studies specifically, arguing that those who continue to be excluded from the archive include “sexual and gender dissidents whose class locations, ethno-racial identifications, labour practices, geographical positions (urban, rural, peri-urban, diasporic), and legal status (refugee, exile, migrant, stateless) remove them from immediate visibility”. Macharia suggests that the names and faces, the bodies, the stories that might populate the queer archive “form an archive of disposability, an archive that is not admitted into official view, an archive whose presence undoes much of what we might mean by archive”.

Yet looking for these archival echoes is far from a neutral undertaking, given that the concept of transgender becomes legitimated through the archival evidence of transgender phenomena. In essence, then, transgender phenomena become “a rhetorical institution that is . . . intentionally adapted to an audience for a particular persuasive purpose”. This purpose is often to prove or establish the validity of the archive in the first place. It can prove problematic because drawing on the archive often requires a re-contextualisation of already established materials. Approaching the archive in this way often requires the researcher to reinterpret what may have been excluded or included, reinstating a cycle of exclusion or inclusion by introducing and foregrounding artefacts considered more salient to a transgender reading. For Rawson, “this cycle of inclusion and exclusion, of representation and misrepresentation, is the permanent shadow of any trans archival project, even digital ones; while transgender archives fight historical neglect, silences, and misrepresentations, the selection and discrimination involved in archiving creates a residual silencing of others.” Such an approach has not always agreed with transgender studies as a discipline, given the absence or secondary positioning of the subject, who seemingly only comes into view through the application of a specific discourse. Transgender studies’ methodological centring of the lives of transgender people becomes vital in this respect. The question becomes, though: Who is the implied subject?


Are you at ease? Now is your heart at rest?

Now you have got a shadow, an umbrella,

To keep the scorching world’s opinion

From your fair credit.

John Fletcher, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife (1640)

The question of terms—their use, purpose and meaning—has become pressing, both in relation to how to make work heard and also, most importantly, in respecting participants. In the introduction to a special issue of Agenda on non-normative sexual and gender diversities in Africa, Zethu Matebeni and Thabo Msibi highlight some of the broader struggles related to drawing on Western terms, and confronting issues regarding English. Language involves political stakes, movements, perceptions and histories. I want to begin my decentering of transgender studies by addressing two of the key points maintained in much of the scholarship produced in the Global North. The first involves the view of the term “transgender” as an umbrella, a temporal and spatial metaphor, very rarely troubled for its implicit whiteness and neocolonial mapping. The second point is the fear pervasive in Global Northern constructions of transgender that it has come to represent “homosexuality’s definitive gender style”.

Thinking about the metaphor very literally for a moment, an umbrella is something quintessentially European. Some would argue, given the ubiquitous colonial images of dark bodies straining, sweating, arms outstretched, shielding light bodies from the sun, that umbrellas are in fact an important colonial artefact. (Certainly historically we find the close cousin of the umbrella—the parasol—in Ancient Egypt and Asia, but the umbrella itself is an object that radiates the inventiveness, brutality and power structures of the colonial past.) The umbrella as a metaphor is intended to suggest fluidity, a kind of “homing space” for several identities. Yet, as Nael Bhanji notes, the metaphor is really a “pseudo-umbrella”, problematic in its relations to race, necolonialism and the cultural specificity embedded within it. Aizura, too, points to the cultural specificity of the umbrella metaphor, suggesting that it in fact simplifies “the complex global flows of shared subcultural knowledges that travel far beyond the English-speaking metropolis”.

In many African countries, there is very little understanding of transgender identity. Gender transgression is often read through the concept of “homosexuality”, or as the pinnacle of what it means to be gay. Victor Mukasa, one of the first “high-profile” African transgender-identified activists, sought refuge in South Africa in the mid-two-thousands. He explains the overlap between perceptions of homosexuality and gender within communities:

Generally, all gender[-]non-conforming people are “automatically” branded homosexuals as in most of our communities, a man who looks or has tendencies of a woman is the proper picture of a gay man. In the same way, a woman who looks like or has tendencies of a man is declared a lesbian automatically. So in our communities, many trans people have been kept blind to gender identity issues and have themselves, many times, referred to themselves as just homosexual.

For Vivian Namaste, gender expression is often the foremost signal used to locate lesbians and gay men within a given society. In instances of violence involving individuals perceived as “homosexual”, the attack tends to be justified “not in reaction to one’s sexual identity, but to one’s gender presentation”. This is not to say that sexuality does not enter the question but rather that it is the gender presentation that triggers the possibility of violence; indeed, would-be attackers do not “characteristically inquire as to the sexual identity of their potential victims, but rather make this assumption on their own”. Again, this is not to say that separating what is gender and what is sexuality is a simple matter: the one often stands in for the other; they intersect in significant ways; and more often than not they are collapsed into one another. Namaste, in reflecting on the relationship between gender and sexuality, adds that in certain “social, cultural, and historical contexts” their separation might actually be impossible. This impossibility is partly due to the fact that in these instances “gender is not simply mistaken for sexuality or vice versa; the two are read through one another and constitute each other’s logic”.

The term “transgender” was something all the participants in my research identified with. However, this identification existed in varying degrees, and the ability/inclination to take on the term shifted from person to person. A small minority of participants identified as only transgender in relation to their gender identity. The majority utilised a combination of terms to describe themselves, including “drag”, “ladyboy”, “sis”, “butch”, “queen”, “gender-non-conforming”, “lesbian-transgender”, “sex changer”, “drag queen”, “tom girl” and “complete woman”. All of these terms function along personal circuits of recognition, with the term “transgender” playing a central role but also working alongside others. For some, it is a term that describes their gender presentation or expression—in most cases here, that of “being”, “presenting” or “feeling like” a man or woman. But, as noted, “gay” is also often used to describe the body that is assigned a certain sex at birth and attracted to the same assigned sex (in this instance, assigned-male-to-assigned-male or assigned-female-to-assigned-female). To be clear, some participants identify as transgender women, are attracted to cisgender men and because of this attraction also identify as gay. The same is true for transgender men who use the term “lesbian-transgender”. At the same time, some of participants, though transgender, did not utilise the term as an identity as such but rather identified as men or women (binary genders) and used “transgender” as a name for a certain part of their life’s journey. Several of the participants had accessed gender-affirming healthcare in South Africa—the majority through government hospitals or privately and self-funded—but many others had not sought it out; they simply wanted to present or dress in ways that they felt comfortable.

An intertwined reading of gender and sexuality is by no means a new approach. David Valentine’s book Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category reflected on this matter as early as 2007. Yet when I attend conferences and use the terms “gay” and “transgender” in relation to each other, it becomes abundantly clear that the perception, within the academy at least, continues to be that these should be (and are) isolated experiences. One is either transgender or gay, and if one is both transgender and gay one should be so in the sense that one is attracted to the same gender as the gender being presented. As Valentine notes, “transgender identification is understood across the domains to be explicitly and fundamentally different in origin and being from homosexual identification, a distinction referred to in the social sciences as ontological”. This distinction, within the academy but also within activist spaces, has been furthered by the understanding that there are distinct differences between, in Valentine’s words, the “sexed body, social gender and sexuality”, and that “gender identity is not casually related to sexual desire, and both are conceptualised as independent of sexed bodies”. Arguably, though, this distinction is specific to the Western academy. It is not the way many bodies, including some of the participants in my research, envision themselves.

The “using” of the term “transgender” by participants in my study is not surprising in the African context. In a world where gender transgression often marks one out for violence, where it is often a matter of life and death, everything can and indeed must be incorporated as a tool of survival. Why would transgender identities be immune? In fact, we all use identity in some way to clarify and illuminate certain aspects of ourselves, to gain access to spaces and communities (or not, as the case maybe). This tendency does not negate the felt sense of gender and its expression, but instead acknowledges that the circuits through which the term “transgender” has travelled have imbued it with a certain power and access. Participants used gendered terminology like “transgender” strategically: firstly, to gain access to information, support networks, medical services; secondly, to find allegiance with NGOs; and, finally, to stake out their agency in relation to the expression of their identities. In short, “transgender” was never used by participants as a catch-all category, raised above terms like “ladyboy” and “sis”. Rather it was used alongside these terms, as simply another descriptor or means of explaining their felt sense of gender. Bearing this observation in mind, then, it must noted that the use of “transgender” as a term, in its disruption of an implied universality, can and indeed must sometimes seem conflicting from both an ontological and an epistemological perspective. As I have already suggested, one element of this conflictual usage is clear: there are no umbrellas here.


Border thinking or borderland epistemology is a key element of decolonial methodological approaches. Border thinking, for me, makes room for a shift away from some of the problems I have encountered within the dominant narrative of transgender, or the “trans trajectory”—something Walter Mignolo might find akin to the “hubris of the zero point”. It is not enough to simply follow the given methodologies of transgender studies, however radical these may be. I take heed of Keguro’s words when he suggests that so much of the work that has emerged from Africa neglects the postcolonial context, making the names of homophobic leaders highly visible, and overlooking and possibly erasing African queer lives in the process. He stresses that we cannot continue to “promote research methods that are indifferent to African intellectual production and methodological innovation”. How, then, can shifting the frame not only to the individual body but also to this body’s particular geopolitical locale be achieved? Decolonial practice is in some ways already implicit within transgender studies in that the “knowing subject is never abstract”, to quote Mignolo—but it adds to transgender studies the idea that the knowledge of this subject is “geographically and corpopolitically constituted”. Border epistemology allows for thinking through and over the intersecting liminal positions characterised by, for example, “gender, sexuality . . . by the geo-politics and body-politics of knowledge, of being, and of perception”. Moreover, and crucially, border epistemology interrogates my position as researcher in the field, in relation to participants, and my active role in knowledge production.

Mignolo stresses that the point is not to study the borders from the outside, remaining in some sort of fenced-off “territorial epistemology”. I understand Mignolo here to be warning against “the territorial gaze of the disciplines” and pointing to the need for interdisciplinarity, or what Mignolo would refer to as “plurality”. For Anzaldúa, the borderlands are between systems of knowledge—“a liminal state between worlds”. Border epistemology is useful in that it requires a consideration of the imbricated nature of the Western disciplinary framework while offering the possibility, I believe, of disrupting Western universality and linearity. Mignolo calls for “a way of thinking and understanding that dwells in the entanglement, in the borders”. In essence, this would mean making room for the ways participants might structure their use of transgender outside its very clear geopolitical imagining within the Global North. For Mignolo, who also reflects perhaps some of Keguro’s anxiety, it is crucial to understand the world as “entangled through and by the colonial matrix of power”. Such an understanding allows for stories of embodiment that are, as Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah and Lisa Moore note, aware of the fact that lives are “striated and cross hatched by the boundaries of significant forms of difference other than gender, within all of which gender is necessarily implicated”. In holding this tension, and working to place participants’ lived experience at the centre of my research, the entanglements become possibilities to restructure and decentre certain perceptions of the “trans trajectory”.

Again, this kind of methodological approach stresses the positionality of the researcher. Border thinking involves acknowledging the ways the “I” of the researcher influences the project; it creates an expectancy around the researcher’s own voices. Expanding on this idea, and speaking to both transgender studies as a whole and my own interest in decolonisation, Kenneth Plummer suggests that a key element of this type of methodological approach is its ability to centre the identity stories of “members of historically ‘defiled’ groups . . . reveal[ing] . . . shifts in language over time, which shaped (and were shaped by) the mobilization of these actors”. Issues that might otherwise be understood as “personal troubles” are situated in specific times and places. Returning to Mignolo, this situatedness provides the possibility of stories that are “geographically and corpopolitically constituted”. In turn, an individual’s narratives about these troubles “are works of history as much as they are about individuals, the social spaces they inhabit, and the societies they live in”, to quote Cathrine Kohler-Riessman. Narrators provide a sense of social situations and history; they help ascertain certain truths and link those truths to present-day action or inaction. With regard to truth, it must be understood that each story has a point of view that depends on who or what is telling it, on where or when it is being told. In turn, the value of narrative does not lie in uncovering the truth. Rather it lies in uncovering the meaning of particular phenomena and the relationships between those phenomena—in this case, returning to the archive, transgender phenomena.


The time for us to take up political space is here.

The time for us to take up historical space is here.

The time for us to take up social space has arrived.

The time for us to take up space epistemically is here.

Who else but black, poor, queer trans* womyn?

UCT Trans Collective

In 2015, Sandile Ndelu, Candidate #19, and Thato Pule, Candidate #24, as members of the recently formed the UCT Trans Collective, ran in the Student Representative Council (SRC) elections at the University of Cape Town, under the slogan “Giving Content to Decolonisation”. The Collective, representing trans, non-binary and intersex students, emerged out of the space created by Rhodes Must Fall (RMF). Members of the Collective maintained that its inception was necessary given the fact that their “bodies as black, poor queer trans womyn, [their] psyches, were not part of the mainstream discourse”, nor of the decolonisation dialogue. Part of the aim of their intervention was a desire to see decolonisation becoming cognisant of, and incorporating, the need to “degender” and “decisgender”. As Pule explains in an interview:

It represented the beginning of a journey into understanding exactly what it means to be a poor black trans queer womxn in Afrika and this empowered us to start doing the work of undoing the erasure of Afrikan trans narratives done by imperialists. Imperialists who imposed a rigid understanding of gender through patriarchy.

The decolonial conversation that has unfolded across campuses in South Africa since 2015, and in less publicised forms before then, has challenged institutions, and those in them, to rethink their very form and function. Indeed, what has become unmistakable—to borrow from Carlos Alberto Torres—is the fact that education is not and has never been a neutral or apolitical activity, and that the spaces in which education takes place are themselves neither neutral nor apolitical backdrops. Politically, members of the Collective became visible by placing their bodies at the forefront of a visceral anger at cisnormative exclusion, and by espousing a radical revolutionary gender politics, daring students, academics, management and the wider public to address the needs of poor black trans womxn and consider the nature and reality of the structural violence that many bodies are forced to endure on a daily basis. Their intervention has presented a consistent challenge to dominant structures of “imperialist, white supremacist, ablest, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy”, and has extended a social and political consciousness that demands engagement.

The Collective has arguably initiated the kind of radical, geopolitical conversation and critical pedagogy focused on hybridity and multiplicity that I have argued represents transgender identity as a possibility beyond the Global North. The Collective is more than simply a challenge to traditional gender norms: the group has questioned the very essence of those norms while pointing to both their colonial legacy and their continued neocolonial projections. It has actively sought out adequate language beyond the institution to verbalise the realities of poor black trans womxn. And yet this very particular and considered provision of content to the decolonial project has in some ways also circumvented the issue of “languageing” by actively instigating the kind of critical practice that plots how tertiary institutions might work in the future. Achille Mbembe notes that “decolonizing the university starts with the de-privatization and rehabilitation of the public space—the rearrangement of spatial relations”. In September of 2015, The Collective removed signs allocating gender to bathrooms across UCT’s Upper Campus as a radical intervention that made clear the structural violence and pain embedded in the institution. At the same time, this was an intervention that members of the Collective pointedly refused to engage with University management about. As the call to staff, students and workers on their Facebook page explained:

We encourage all trans* students, staff and workers occupying institutions of higher education to reclaim their spaces by vindicating their right to accommodating and safe sanitation. Do have no business participating in respectability politics; we are out here busy trying to survive.

Their definition of transgender highlights multiplicity and complexity, refusing—and remaining critical of—the meaning implied in its Global Northern roots. It is a definition and a presence that refuse to be ignored. There are multiple narratives here, and a plurality of being and identity, where linear narratives framed by binary identity are but a singular option or possibility for gendered existence within a wider decolonial framework. Their voices have indeed become instructive to the decolonial project, and in so doing have expanded the way we imagine the possibilities of the institution, and indeed of our wider society. Crucially, here, the Collective has inhabited a borderland space. This much is evident in the way its members speak and engage from the margin between tertiary institutional spaces such as the University of Cape Town (which in its very “situatededness” on the mountainside is the almost prototypical ivory tower), activist movements such as RMF, and South African society as a whole.

Stryker asks what it might mean to take seriously the idea that the gender binary “is ideological, historical, socially constructed or technologically produced, rather than being natural”. She further notes that this question lies at the heart of transgender studies. The Collective provides the foundation for both an answer and a challenge to this question, since through active interventions to degender public space they have offered glimpses into what transgender studies might look like as part of the decolonial project: black-led, radical, hybrid, self-defining, nuanced, open to engagement, active and critical. Its pedagogy—an active decentring and restructuring—has confronted the often toxic nature of gender construction, maintaining that gender does not work as an isolated site of violent experience but is in fact implicated in several other systems of oppression.

This observation requires people like myself to be cognisant of and responsible and accountable for our whiteness, our histories, our privileges and investments—the very same awareness and responsibility that I am arguing would be necessary for transgender studies to move forward, with these privileges and investments made visible as sites of accountability within the discipline. What remains clear is that Stryker’s question cannot be answered without us recognising and taking into account the interlocking structural and ideological issues that are intimate allies to gender’s production and construction as neutral and natural. The UCT Trans Collective, given that it is based on a campus, offers more than a decolonial analysis of gender: instead they have already begun the process of generating ideas that challenge the ongoing status quo, reshaping the very structure of University space, and refusing to allow the institution to simply recycle and reinstate business as usual.


On the African continent, the contradictory tensions that seem to suffuse issues of gender in relation to sexuality continue. While transsexual artist Titica was heralded by the BBC for “taking Angola by storm” and went on to become Angola’s “transsexual UN Ambassador”, appointed by UNAIDS, spates of attacks and arrests continued in several African countries, including Uganda. The number of individuals who have sought asylum in the Global North in particular has grown exponentially, quite possibly establishing a new class of gender refugees. This development has precipitated the emergence of diasporic movements and groupings like the Kuchu Diaspora Alliance. In Kenya, transgender activist Audrey Mbugua has become in many ways the public face of transgender activism, winning a court battle in 2014 to have her organisation registered as well as the right to have her name changed on her school certificate. Meanwhile, in August of 2015, Solomon Gichira, an LGBT-rights activist, petitioned the Kenyan High Court to establish a third gender category for people who do not identify as male or female. Notably, Gichira filed the claim in the hope of addressing the needs of “transgender, intersex and gender[-]non-conforming people”. At the same time, a growing number of LGBT asylum seekers, mostly from Uganda, continue to struggle in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, hoping for resettlement by the UNHCR. In Zimbabwe, a trans woman made international headlines after she was arrested and strip-searched for having used a women’s toilet. In Nigeria, television network Multichoice dropped from its schedule the American television series I am Jazz about a transgender teen after Nigeria’s television regulator received several complaints. The program was subsequently pulled from all other African television networks.

From Lesotho to Cameroon to Algeria to Cape Verde, the term “transgender” has begun to appear more frequently in varied news media, often as part of reporting on arrests, beating, violations and murders. Most often these stories are the ones picked up by international news agencies, but in general there has been a growing visibility of a group of people utilising the term in different ways to identify and define themselves.

I have argued that the dominant transgender narrative forecloses the possibility of these multiple interpretations, and in so doing forces gendered practices outside the Global North to adhere to a certain body politics in order to become visible within a very Western framework. Stryker notes that “transgender is without a doubt a category of first world origin that is being exported for third world consumption”. Yet, as Andrew Tucker notes in Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town, “it remains difficult and dubious to analytically prise apart ‘western identities’ and identities found in Africa”. Gayatri Gopinath warns that discourses pertaining to gender in non-Western contexts are inextricable from other influential factors such as the “prior and continuing histories of colonialism, nationalism, racism and migration”.

I believe that transgender studies can provide the critical tools needed to begin unpacking the emergence, politics, impact and influence of the shifting field of gender across the African continent. In order for transgender studies to achieve this, the decolonial practice of thinking from the border, of corpo-politically disrupting linearity—a practice already implicit in transgender studies—must be reclaimed and made explicit as a priority. Doing so is essential if the discipline is to truly address what Stryker and Aizura call “its implicit whiteness, US-centricity, Anglophone bias, and sometimes the suspect ways in which the category transgender has been circulated transnationally”. Drawing on Gabriel Hoosain Khan’s recent article on decolonising queerness, if we begin at the point of responding to language—responding to what “transgender”, “gender” and myriad other interrelated terms mean contextually—we may in fact impact “the associated research practice which informed this language and the advocacy which too emerged from this language”. When we attend to language, we begin to make way for hybridity; we begin to “demythologise” colonial histories of gender, sex and sexuality, to use Mbembe’s phrase. As The UCT Trans Collective warns, though, “decoloniality is not a metaphor”: it is an experiential practice whose outcome simply cannot be decided or predicted in advance. What we may find along the way are new ways of identifying, inhabiting and defining what it is or what it might mean to be a man or a womxn or, crucially, none of the above.


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B Camminga is a PhD graduate of the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa. Their thesis tracked the conceptual journeying of the term “transgender” from the Global North along with the physical, embodied journeying of transgender asylum seekers from countries within Africa to South Africa, and considered the interrelationships between the two. Their research interests include: transgender rights, the bureaucratisation of gender in relation to transgender bodies and asylum regimes globally, possibilities for mobility and migration of gender-nonconforming persons from, across and within the African region, and the history of trans phenomena in South Africa. Although their current work has focused on “gender refugees” from Africa residing in South Africa, they hope to extend this project at the postdoc level to those who have managed to seek asylum and/or refuge off-continent in the Global North.