Being Transgender In Zimbabwe: Ricky Nathanson Speaks Out

By Jeffrey Moyo

Harare, February 27, 2014 – At his 90th birthday celebration last week, President Robert Mugabe called on Zimbabweans not to “misuse” their sex organs. Statements such as these by the national leader have made living an LGBTI lifestyle in Zimbabwe extremely uncomfortable, often leading to harassment of community members by the public and law enforcement. One transgender activist shares her story.

Many people in Zimbabwe are unclear whether she is male or female. But 48-year-old Ricky Nathanson says, “I prefer to be called by the female pronoun ‘she’.”

Despite being born with male sexual organs, ever since childhood she says she’s always felt female. What’s more, the topic has fueled her identity as an activist.

“Yes, I am a transgender activist, not only that, but a human rights defender,” Nathanson tells RNW.

As to gender expressions in daily life, she says: “Yes I live as a woman 100% daily, 365 days a year, which involves me shopping for clothing, manicures, waxing and facials, and of course my nieces and nephews address me as aunt or sister, with my family having no problems with my sexuality.”

“My friends are also extremely supportive and take me as a strong woman; they refer to me using the female pronoun ‘she’,” Nathanson says.

But her ordeal in Zimbabwe is one of torture, harassment, humiliation and, above all, segregation. Nathanson’s only offence is that of being perceived as biologically abnormal in this southern African nation.

Many shades of grey

Nathanson has, however, refused to be bogged down by her compatriot’s homophobic tendencies, maintaining that she is female. She adds that many people – helped by the media, which she accuses of being ignorant about issues of sexuality – misconstrue being transgender for being gay. She says the Zimbabwean media since 2006 has been negatively portraying her, resulting in her receiving unnecessary public attention each time she moves around.

“I would just ask people to leave me alone, and at the same time to stop being so prejudicial and transphobic; they also need to come to terms with the fact that life is not composed of the two extremes – black and white – there are a myriad number of the shades of grey in between; there exists feelings in the make-up of every individual due to hormonal, chromosomal, sociological, and the basic psychological make-up of each human being,” says Nathanson.

And she says she consciously made the choice to live as a female.

“I crossed the gender line, meaning I made the conscious decision to live my life as a female as I had this overwhelming need to do so, which was necessary to safeguard my own sanity; I really did feel as though I was a soul trapped in the wrong body – that of a man,” she explains.

Quizzed about her relationship status on Facebook  that reads “complicated”, Nathanson says: “This is a gender identification issue; I hate mixing it with the whole same-sex thing; I shudder [to think] what can of worms will be opened if I shed light on my sex life.”

Living in a homophobic society

For Nathanson, the ordeal of living amongst a community of people that refuse to accept her is nightmarish. On 16 January, the transgender activist and businesswoman based in Bulawayo was apprehended by a ruling Zanu-PF party youth league member. Farai Mteliso initiated a citizen’s arrest, accusing her of entering a female toilet at a local hotel. She says she was wearing women’s pants which included a baggy top and a tight bottom.

“At Palace Hotel Gardens, I was to meet my client for whom I had provided some accounting services when I was approached by Farai in the company of two gentlemen whom he said were from the President’s Office and were not happy with what I was doing,” she tells RNW.

“I asked what it was that I was doing that was offensive to them and they were elusive, and kept on insisting that I knew what it was. They then said they were prepared to let me go if I paid them some money; I refused outright and then asked them to produce some form of identification to prove who they were; they then said they were not who they purported to be, but they would show me what power they had,” Nathanson says.

She says she was handed over to riot cops, facing charges of wearing female clothes, masquerading as a woman and using a female toilet. According to Nathanson, even Zimbabwe’s law enforcement agents here seem to side with the homophobic majority.  

“Upon arrival at Bulawayo Central Police Station, all the police officers kept coming in to the charge office to see what was going on and asking questions like: ‘What are you? Why are you dressed this way? Do you have a girlfriend or boyfriend? Do you have children? Why not? Whom do you live with?’” Nathanson recalls.

“At Bulawayo Police station, I was asked to remove my trousers before six male police officers, which I did. They said they wanted to verify my gender, after which they scoffed at me and ridiculed me all the more,” adds Nathanson.

She says with police directive, two medical doctors who verified her gender confirmed that although Ricky is biologically male, her hormonal, chromosomal, psychological and physiological make-up is that of a female. 

But Nathanson also says she was forced to spend two nights in police holding cells after her relatives were barred from paying an admission of guilt fine, with police insisting her offence was too serious.

Although she appeared in court later, and was released from police custody after paying US $50 bail, her situation worsened. Mteliso, the complainant in the case, hurled insults at the prosecutor for being light-handed in handling Nathanson’s case, “saying people like me should not be allowed to walk free in the streets”.

Personal losses

Owing to the arrest, Nathanson says she incurred losses in business. She is the executive director for Ricochet Modeling Agency and also provides accounting consulting services.

“All my students have withdrawn from the agency and the impact of this financial loss is hugely significant; the world has to know who I am, and recognize the contributions I have made, especially to the modeling industry here,” says Nathanson.

According to Chesterfield Samba, director for Gays and Lesbians Association in Zimbabwe, about 1,500 gay, lesbian or transgender individuals seek their services. The GALZ Resource Centre in Harare provides professional counselling, entertainment and educational activities for members. GALZ is also actively involved in broader human rights campaigning and in the fight for access to affordable treatment for all people living with HIV or AIDS.