Transgender identity is one of the most controversial aspects of modern day society. FAITH KYOUMUKAMA spoke to three individuals on their experiences; Jaffar Jackson, who was going through a transition, Letoya Johnstone, a transgender and crossdresser, and Erika Murunga a crossdresser
Jaffar Jackson Irungu, 34
Walk us through your journey growing up
At the tender age of four, I always felt like something was not right with me. Any time my family members referred to me as a boy, I would insist that I was a girl, and this left me in a state of unending confusion.
Instead of playing with boy toys, I would go for Barbie dolls and play dress-up, just like the girls were doing. Every day I would pray to wake up a girl.
So did your dream come true?
(Chuckles) I struggled with my identity to the extent of being bullied by my mates with statements such as “you run like a girl, you dress like a girl” and more.
Then what happened?
I wanted to make it a reality, so I started dressing like the girl in my dreams. Heels, weaves, make-up and whatever else we deem girly became the norm I so desired over the years.
In 2012, I started my transition journey, and in 2015 I went public about my transition. That is when everything blew up. The last time news about you was in the media, it was about your transition from male to female as Miss Jay.
Part of 2015 and 2016 was an eventful time for me. After undergoing hormonal replacement therapy in South Africa, I went through a weird low that I attribute to hormonal imbalance.
But, what was worse was the pressure I was getting from exterior forces; the media, friends and family, leading to depression. It only got worse, resulting in suicide attempts.
Wow, so did you ever think of seeking medical attention?
No. Instead, I turned to alcohol and drugs to find solace. I also struggled with the fact that I had finally done what I always wanted, and that’s to transition and become female, yet, I was not feeling at peace.
Something was not right. The first attempt of committing suicide was before I left Nairobi. I took many drugs at once and mixed it up with a litre of Vodka. It was a total fail, as someone found me and I was rushed to hospital.
You talk about the first time, did you try to commit suicide again?
Yes, four times actually. The second time was six months down the line. I took rat poison, and again had alcohol to wash it down. My thinking was, with alcohol present, it would probably work faster. But, nothing happened.
The third time I took rat poison but without anything. One of my newly made friends in Eldoret where I had relocated to by this time found me and administered first aid immediately, so that failed too. Still, I tried to commit suicide the fourth time. I bought a few depression pills to mix and swallow, but I somehow gave up in the process.
Tell us about your move to Eldoret
It was on a Saturday in 2016 when I decided that I would walk from Nairobi to Eldoret. I left my friend’s place in Pangani and headed for Waiyaki Way, broke and phoneless, only wearing huge trench coats to cover up some female features such as breasts that had started developing following the hormonal replacement therapy.
I still looked like a man, so I did not want to attract attention. Somewhere along the way, I saw a sign post that read ‘180km to Nakuru’. It hit me how ridiculous it was to walk all the way, and I despaired.
Fortunately, there was a Nissan matatu that had broken down mid trip. Two girls of Somali origin who were passengers in the broken down van stood by the road next to me, and I heard them complain that the money the driver had refunded them was not enough to get to Nakuru, so they opted to flag down a truck.
Luckily, the truck stopped and I joined in to hitch the ride to Nakuru. I thought at least it was only a three-hour drive to my intended destination.
Did you know anyone in Nakuru?
No one, apart from an uncle, with whom I was not in touch, and of course wasn’t planning to contact. Things went awry when I was looking for a job at Courtyard Hotel in Nakuru. I struck conversation with a fellow interviewee, who even left me his bag to look after when he was going in for his session.
When he asked where I was staying in Nakuru, I lied that my cousin would pick me up, and he left me his phone number in case I needed help. I later called him using a boda boda guy’s phone with a fake story, and he directed us to his place where he offered me food and shelter for the night.
I stayed there for two days, and on the morning of the third day, we were chatting and started discussing the terror attacks that were rampant at the time. He asked me about it and I gave him my two cents based on what I had read and seen on TV.
Can you imagine he set me up with the cops, who picked me up from his house the next day, claiming that I was a terror suspect, especially because I had no identification.
How did that end up?
I was handcuffed, but after talking to my dad using the chief’s phone, my uncle who resided in Nakuru came with my identification documents and I was released. You would think after such an experience I would go back home in Nairobi, but instead, I chose to journey on to Eldoret. I used the money my uncle had given me to go back home as fare to Eldoret.
Is it in Eldoret where you found peace?
Thankfully, yes. I worked as a waiter to make a living and stayed in a Sh1,000 mud house that I called home for months. But it was here in August 2016 that I got born again, at the Winner’s Chapel Eldoret branch. I stood at the pulpit and laid down all my truths, including my past, and came back to Nairobi early this year to make peace with my family.
That must have been emotional for your family It was. They actually did a welcome party for the prodigal son (chuckles), and it was an amazing reunion, because I felt like I put them through a lot in the past with my actions.
So you are no longer a transgender?
No, I’m not. I am a man, I have a son now and I’m currently dating his mother. I’m hoping to marry her in the future. And the bottom line is, I’m happy and I have found peace.
Did you meet her through church in Eldoret?
Yes. It’s amazing that someone can fall in love with you despite your past. Remember I was never attracted to girls my whole life. I have come to understand that it’s all in the mind. You grew up in London for a part of your childhood and used to act in Hallmark movies.
Do you think it contributed to your gender identity issues and cross-dressing lifestyle?
Yes, in major ways, plus I used to work in the fashion world as a runway coach and stylist, and I would get jobs outside the country. I was also a participant in M-Net Idols show, so I would say I was too exposed to that world.
And what happen to the female features you were already developing, did they disappeared after you stopped taking the hormonal drugs? Yes, but I had to take drugs to bring the testosterone back up.
Erika Murunga, 27
At what point did you realise you were different?
I knew I was gay at the age of 14, while in my last year of primary school back in 2005. I loved the company of girls since I was in Class Four, and by the time I was going to join high school, I figured I had feelings for boys, as much as I never liked their company.
How was it in high school?
In high school, my feelings grew stronger towards the same sex and by the time I was finishing school, my orientation was clear to me. The funny thing is that my beard never broke out, and boys in my school would make fun of how I talked. Obviously it was frustrating, but I had to deal with it.
So are you a transgender?
I consider myself a crossdresser and not a transgender. I just love dressing up as a woman, wearing good make-up and having fun. No hormones involved, and I have no plans of taking them. I am okay with my gender as a man, but I still like dressing up as a woman. When going for parties, I go all out with dresses and all.
How old were you when you first tried wearing women’s clothes and make-up?
Cross-dressing came later on in 2012 at the age of 22, but I just did it in the house and once in a while I would go out with something feminine. I ‘came out’ in 2016 at 26 years, and with my femme name, Erika.
I just went for the female version of my original name, Eric, plus I find the name Erika sassy and cute. For make-up, I tried earlier, when I was eight years old. I would use eyeliner and wear baby powder on my face.
Do you shop at the female section in boutiques or you mix it up?
I do a mix, depending on the look I want to rock on a particular day. I find stuff that work for my body type, but still make me look as feminine as possible.
Have you ever tried to quit this lifestyle or felt like you could purge your closet of feminine clothes?
Well, that has never happened. At times I find masculine clothing that I used to wear and I feel like I don’t identify with it, but I still keep the clothes in the male section. The female section in the closet is my favourite.
What does your family say about your status?
I was brought up by my grandmother, she supports me. What do you do? I just completed my studies at the University of Nairobi where I was studying sociology. I’m currently involved in LGBT activism.
Letoya Johnstone, 24.
When did you begin cross-dressing?
I can’t tell the specific age or year, but I was very young. I would wear skirts and dresses, though I didn’t know what was going on. I just liked wearing girly clothes.
So is Letoya a femme name or that’s what’s on your birth certificate?
(Chuckles) Send me Sh10 or even Sh1 on mobile money using my phone number and see the name that will appear. It reads Letoya Johnstone You now have the answer to your question. You probably get bashed a lot.
How do you handle it?
When they bash me, my catwalk improves and I swirl and twirl. Bashing has happened to me all through my life. I used to get very angry and frustrated.
I even tried committing suicide five times, by jumping from a building and even hanging myself. But I learnt to use that anger to create who I am today. For me, the best reaction is silence.
Has it gotten to the extent of people being physical with you?
Yes, I have gone through a lot. I have been attacked before by a man who claimed I was community inappropriate. I have been raped as well, in Homa Bay where I grew up. It was in 2008, at the height of the post-election violence that rocked the country. I was ambushed and gang-raped by unknown men.
I was going to the shop when a group of men grabbed me, pushed me to the ground and sexually assaulted me. I went to the hospital to take HIV prophylaxis drugs, but when the doctor in charge learned that I was gay – as I identified as then – he refused to treat me. I have lost jobs because of my sexuality. I have lost a lot of opportunities because of who I am.
Is it the reason you started Toytoy Models?
Yes. I launched the agency after facing a lot of rejection in the modelling industry. People think you need to be of a certain standard, or tell you you’re not pretty enough, you’re too dark and other such dismissive attitudes, which are the reason I started it. I have signed up unconventional models, such as people with albinism and vitiligo.
Apart from the modelling agency and working in the fashion industry, what else do you do?
I work at Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK) as a counsellor and peer educator. I actually came to Nairobi four years ago to work there. You identify as transgender.
Are you planning to transition in future?
Even if I could afford hormonal treatment and gender reassignment surgery, I would never consider it, because of my religious beliefs. Even though I feel like I’m in the wrong body, I don’t want to tamper with how God created me, which is in his own image.
When you need the restroom in public spaces, do you go to the ladies?
Yes, whenever I can. It’s even safer for me. In some regions, they are strict and would bar me. Thankfully, in many places in Kenya, I use the ladies hassle-free.
How is your dating life?
I have never been in a relationship. I have been single all my life and I don’t even think of dating. People can end up using and abandoning you after getting what they wanted. I’m not used to love, and I’m even skeptical when someone shows me affection.
How would you describe your sense of style?
Sexy, sassy, and it is never too short until I make it short.