Audrey Mbugua, formerly known as Andrew Mbugua, hit the headlines some five years ago when she sought to legally change the name on her academic certificates. Then, more recently, she won a case against the government and was awarded Sh27m together with four other transgender people after moving to court to compel the principal registrar of persons to effect the change of particulars of their new names on their national identification cards. She says it was not Sh30m as reported in the media, and adds that they are yet to receive the money.
Since then, she has been in and out of courts for other transgender cases and won some of them subsequently. Born a male in Kiambu in 1984 and given the name Andrew, she felt trapped in the wrong body and started dressing in women’s clothes while at Maseno University, attracting the mocks, sympathy and rejection of fellow students. To date, Audrey dresses, does her hair, lips, manicures and pedicures just like any other woman.
“I’m the third born in a family of five, two brothers and two sisters,” she says. Back in the village, her siblings, neighbours and even matatu touts still call her ‘manzi chali’, a name she says she has learnt to accept over the years. Growing up was fun, she used to be daddy’s boy until she decided to go through transformation and demanded to change her ‘slavery name’ Andrew to Audrey. “My dad would teach me how to drive. He used to hang out with me often,” she emotionally recalls, swinging on her seat at her Nairobi-based office.
Some issues barely rankle, while others create no end of pain. Her family troubles got worse each year and eventually, though blood is thicker than water, Audrey decided to let go of her dad, currently based in the US, and focus on being herself. “I let him go and decided to live a lone life. Sometimes I miss the moments, but again, I don’t want to bother anyone anymore in this world. I just want to be me and that’s all,” she adds. The transgender activist gave up on her dad completely, saying she is no longer interested in solving the matter. “Sometimes I talk with my siblings and they’ll say ‘Oh, dad called, alikusalimia’, and I’ll respond ‘Fine, msalimie pia,’” Audrey shares, fixing her glasses and rubbing one of the tattoos on her wrists.
While one cannot remove themselves from the family tree, they can try to work out some of the relations. Audrey has managed to trust and build a strong friendship with her grandmother. “My granny has been my greatest source of strength. She often calls to check on me and on the weekends, I sometimes go to visit her. She understands me more than any member of my family,” adds Audrey.
So how is it like when she visits cucu, does she do house chores and kitchen work? “Oh yes! I do that a lot. Every time we have visitors at home and I get invited, I must go. I clean the dishes, serve the visitors and do everything that a typical woman is required to do back at home,” she offers. However, she sometimes gets excluded from family events, especially where relatives who have never accepted her situation are involved. Audrey says that this no longer bothers her. “Sometimes I only catch wind of a function that was at home from neighbours, long after it happened,” she shrugs.
It’s easy to say, live life on your own terms, but if you haven’t figured out those terms, you may feel like you’re drifting through your own existence, but for Audrey, since defining her terms, she’s quite content with her circumstances. She attained A- (minus) in her KCSE exams and, after declining to take up law studies at the University of Nairobi, she joined Maseno University class of 2006 to study Biomedical Science, later graduating with Upper Second Class Honours. “Campus life was hard, as it was the time I began transitioning, but with God’s grace, I survived through it,” she recalls.
It didn’t get easier after graduating, as she faced the same stigma in the search for a job. “I attended many job interviews and every time, the question of identity came up. The panel could not reconcile the man’s name (Andrew) on the academic papers with the feminine individual in front of them. Many are the times I was accused of impersonification. Despite my qualifications, no one wanted to hire me,” regrets Audrey, who is currently occupied with an NGO that champions and raises awareness on the rights of transgender people, known as Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA).
The transgender woman says dating for her is a minefield, as there are many games to play. She says she can date both men and women, because she falls in love with a person, and not ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’. She can also date another trans person, who would actually be ideal, as they understand each other. “I will date anyone because I believe gender is not all about what is in between our legs. However, given opportunity, I’d prefer dating women more than men because they are more gentle and understanding,” laughs Audrey, who says she’s yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery and her male genitalia is still functional, though she cannot get children as the hormone replacement therapy she has been undergoing suppressed fertility.
She admits to have kissed and dated men before. Audrey recalls an incident she left the club with a man who had been oogling at her all night, and when they got to a room they had secured, she had to admit the inevitable. “Those were the days I used to party hard. The poor guy instantly sobered up from his drunken stupor, grabbed his clothes hurriedly and put them on as he bolted down the corridor,” she remembers, nearly bursting into laughter. The 33-year-old is currently single, and although she is searching, she has no plans to get into a committed relationship, but just have fun. “Marriage is not in my plans. I prefer to live a lone life because I don’t want to stress anyone with my situation. I’d love to have kids, but I know I will never have my biological ones. I’m not even planning to adopt, as I fear it might not work out, because many people are still skeptical about transgender women in this country,” she explains.
The activist, who has been vocal about transgender persons not being by design gay, is quick to clarify that just because she can date anyone, doesn’t mean she’s a homosexual. She insists that being of an additional gender from the typical two, the relationships she gets into are actually straight, and not gay. Transgender people are said to exhibit the full range of possible sexual orientations, and they prefer to define their orientation relative to their gender identity.
Audrey remains occupied with advocacy work, spending hours behind her computer doing research and other studies. The activist believes that great strides have been achieved, as Kenyans are now more understanding of what it means to be a transgender person compared to before, although she still faces many challenges. “Some people still don’t understand that mine is all about a medical condition (gender identity disorder or GID), that has nothing to do with homosexuality. Sometimes I walk down a street and can hear people talking and whispering things, but I pay it no mind. I’m clear about who I am and what I want,” states Audrey.
For now, she continues to see her doctor on a monthly basis and receiving her hormonal treatment to fully attain feminine features. “Some day, I will consider going the whole nine yards and undergo surgery, but at the moment, I’ll keep going for my routine medical checks until my doctors recommend otherwise,” she concludes.