Category Archives: Kenya

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

Raw

It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…

The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”

The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.

Everyone should have been outraged.

Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.

To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics.  She used a clever method to  isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude.  In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.

So much for the cherished notion of “universal” human dignity. Continue reading Raw

An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

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Last night I shared the stage with prominent politicians and activists: Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Neera Tanden (president of the Center for American Progress), Helene Gayle (CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative) and others of note. It’s not my usual crowd, granted, but we were all there with a common purpose – to rally the troops in these final “get out the vote” days of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and to help move her forward to claim her place in history. The first woman President – it’s been such a long wait!

Humility aside, I was delighted to be invited to speak to the large crowd gathered at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.  But as I began my address I paused; I had to share with them the obvious: that there almost certainly would not be a Republic campaign event anywhere in the country that would have an openly transgender woman at the speakers’ podium.

This was special.

My invitation to speak – while special – was no accident. Instead, my presence was clearly intended to underpin a central message of the Hillary Clinton campaign: “stronger together”. I was included, alongside the political and activist luminaries, because “stronger together” means all of us – even those whom society typically places at the fringes.

There is also some personal history here. For me, the invitation first came from President Obama, when I was asked by his Administration to become one of the first three transgender political appointees in this nation’s history, and the very first in the foreign affairs agencies. More invitations followed, including a monthly invitation to all three of us to come to the White House. Once there, Amanda Simpson, Dylan Orr, and I were invited to suggest how they – the White House – might best address the plight of transgender people. And they listened, and each month they reported back to us!

At those monthly meetings, the three of us each had much to share. The daily realities faced by this highly-marginalized group – my people – remain bleak. We struggle to be accepted, to avoid persecution and violence, and to access things that most people take for granted…a chance at a job, the ability to rent an apartment, insurance coverage that doesn’t exclude our health needs, and a future free from becoming just another statistic in a worsening epidemic of murder of transgender women sweeping this country, especially for my Black transgender sisters.

Despite this profound set of challenges, it’s not all bad. In many important ways, things have been getting better. Under President Obama, the Democrats have had our backs, and the transgender-specific campaign promises that Secretary Clinton has placed on her website make it very clear that this will continue, and will gain even more momentum. We’re counting on that. Continue reading An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

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As someone trained in public policy whose life and career has been international, my end-of-year musings tend toward discerning global trends. Despite the recent flood of dystopian movies and television offerings in the United States, are things getting better and is progress being made? In the face of the rampant barbarity and media-hyped cruelty of movements such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and the Taliban, is civilization getting stronger? Contrary to the grisly death statistics of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, or at Garissa University in Kenya, or the many incidences of Boko Haram violence in Africa that the Western press largely ignores, is safety and security improving for most people on this planet? In the crumbling and almost forgotten remains of the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and Egypt’s latest swing to authoritarianism, and the deepening polarization and distrust of politics in the United States, are democracies still thriving?

And what about respecting human rights and the recognition of human dignity? Do these terms mean much anymore? What of the plight of the most vulnerable among us? Women’s rights? The humane treatment of animals? The plight of the elderly? The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons? Freedom of expression, movement, participation, conscience?

In short, what about us?

Is the grand experiment known as humanity getting any better? Are we moving slowly toward global peace, not just in the sense of an absence of violence but in the much deeper sense of what peace really entails? Are we “developing” in a moral sense? While most of us have our own intuition on these matters, there aren’t clear answers, and the distortions in our perceptions are legion. The media by its nature focuses on what sells: disasters, terrorism, wars, failures, disappointments, violence, corruption, crime, immorality, betrayal, or avarice. We hear or read very little about integrity, compassion, solidarity, sacrifice, teamwork, bravery, mercy, or humility. Enormously important words like wisdom, virtue, statesmanship, authenticity, and idealism slip from our vocabulary. Continue reading 2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

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For a non-Catholic, I’ll admit to a certain grudging admiration for Pope Francis.

Why grudging? Well, he’s the leader of a religious denomination of 1.2 billion persons, still exclusively led just by men. Any organization – even a small one – that limits its leadership to persons of one gender is poorly situated to understand the dynamic tapestry of humanity, or to draw upon the spiritual and worldly gifts that men and women, boys and girls, each uniquely offer. The Roman Catholic Church however isn’t a small organization, so sexism institutionalized on such a gargantuan scale leaves me profoundly uneasy (and to be clear, I’d be every bit as uneasy were this church led only by women).

Pope Francis seems unlikely to morph into the Angel of Gender Equity any time soon. This Pope has also said some very unflattering things about people who are transgender, such as comparing us with nuclear weapons! Perhaps I should be flattered with such a comparison – it is seldom that a transgender person is ever described as supremely powerful (even if in a destructive sense). Pope Francis however has taken the view that the world’s nuclear arsenals are to be equated with some of the world’s most disempowered and persecuted people – both standing accused of failing “to recognize the order of creation”. So while I lack the weight of a billion-plus congregation, I refute the Pope’s accusation, remaining convinced that the divine light shines equally in each and every one of us. That’s the “order of creation” that I feel most led to respond to, and to reach for.

So I have reasons to feel under-appreciated by this Pontiff…and “grudging” I will remain. Still, the Pope’s recent observation about the Christmas season that we’re entering upon left me deeply moved, if also deeply saddened. His words:

“we are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

I just set up my Nativity scene at home, and here in Maryland there are already Christmas lights. Yes – I have received invitations to parties, and I will be happy to attend. This morning I’ve spent time online trying to locate (affordable) tickets to take my children to the ballet (The Nutcracker, of course). “Black Friday” (a name that should be a warning) was yesterday, and the media has once again ramped itself up to its usual annual frenzy of commercialization, ever-increasing crassness, and rank consumerism.

What does any of the American Christmas Industry have to do with the celebration of the remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a humble stable? We no longer even ask. Continue reading A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

Kenya – trouble in paradise

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Spectacular! Stunning!

My quest for superlative adjectives wasn’t up to this, and so I just gazed, wide-eyed but in silence. I shared the small plane with only the pilot – my friend and rock-climbing buddy Frank Barnes – as we flew west from Nairobi towards the Ngong Hills. We stayed relatively close to the fascinating patchwork of farms below, until I gasped; suddenly the earth dropped precipitously away as we crossed over the Escarpment. We soared out in the cloudless sky to the northwest across the Great Rift Valley, and circled lazily over the hikers on the crater trail at the summit of Mt. Longonot volcano (pictured above). Then we circled first north and then eastwards, out across Lake Naivasha and then up to the Aberdares National Park, with snow-capped Mt. Kenya on the horizon. The beauty and grandeur of this country simply overwhelmed me.

Poignantly, that aerial safari was my farewell gift from my friend, the pilot, as I put ten years of living in Kenya behind me and headed back to the United States. Frank would meet an untimely death a few years later while piloting his solo balloon in the UK, but this remarkable hour with him in that small plane will live in my heart for my whole life. So would the realization that God has truly blessed the people of Kenya with one of the most beautiful countries on this planet. Of course my admiration for Kenya extends beyond the breathtaking landscape. Kenyans are a hard-working, hospitable, patriotic and civic-minded people, seeking what we all seek – a chance at a meaningful, happy life within a vibrant community.

So why is this gorgeous country experiencing such bad governance?

OK, my view of Kenya is no longer from the window of a small plane, but I am keeping close watch as I read many reports of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s crackdown on civil society. While such organizations lack the traditional levers of power and wealth, governments around the world have come to respect (and sometimes fear) the influence of civil society organizations (CSOs) to expose government malfeasance, corruption, waste, and inefficiency, and to demand critically needed social services, genuine justice and rule of law, and higher standards of government professionalism. So when Kenya’s CSOs speaks out on challenging topics such as human rights, inadequate social services, corruption, and the government’s ineffectual reaction to various real and imagined threats of terrorism, such criticism rankles those at the top of the political hierarchy who until now have been largely “above criticism”.

These aren’t insignificant crackdowns; recently Kenya threatened 959 CSOs with deregistration. Officially this is attributed to alleged financial irregularities in the way these CSOs are being managed and funded, and I accept that there may be some degree of truth in this assertion. CSOs around the world struggle with very limited and insecure financial resources and with overall “capacity” challenges – i.e. with attracting and retaining well-qualified managerial, accounting, and administrative staff. Being in full compliance with complex government financial reporting requirements may be a particular burden for a few of them.

But 959 of them? Continue reading Kenya – trouble in paradise