There’s a poem by Richard Siken that I like. It’s called Unfinished Duet. My favourite part of the poem is “he raises the moon on a crane and scrubs it until it shines.” That image for me is very animated, very lifelike. I see it happen in real-time, almost vividly. Me, perched on a crane, armed with sandpaper, scrubbing away, as the moon rock gets iridescent. The silver light reflected on my forehead, glinting on my teeth. I’ve always thought myself to be much bigger than I actually am. Great, even. My limbs, having phantom extensions, some sort of invisible prosthetics. My hands reaching galaxies and my feet going beneath the ground, growing faux roots in the belly of the earth. Firm.
I burrow into art of any form, stay there even for a fleeting movement. A refined form of escapism. Another piece of ageless art for me is Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, the dance of the Seven Veils, specifically. There’s a video rendition of it performed in 2002 by Aida Gomez. Salomé, the stepdaughter of King Herod does this special dance for him as a tribute for his birthday. She twirls, flips and gyrates in the most salacious way, the most serpentine way.
She loses one veil at a time. Flings them at her audience (Herod) and they travel on the wings of the wind like polyester scarves. She loses more and more veils. The tension in the air getting thick and hard as tumescence. From the look of things, that’s what was happening underneath Herod’s royal robes. Tumescence. Stepchildren fuckers aren’t a new concept. As her areolas move against her last veil like beaks of hatching chicks breaking through their egg shells, she loosens it at the shoulder, the tempo of the Middle Eastern music swelling and swallowing them all, whole. She pirouettes one last time across the room, strips herself of her last shred of sheer linen and exposes to the drummers, tambourinists, her mother, and Herod, her freshly Brazilian waxed mons pubis. Powerful. Feminine. Divine. Woman. Object of the men’s desire. The women too.
I’ve envisioned myself as Salomé at least a dozen times doing this dance everytime I walk into a new room. I want that to be my introduction. Only that I’d be bigger than Salomé and I’d stand on an even grander dais. It isn’t in my nature to fold myself into mobile luggage; to make myself fit. If the world is big enough for you, it’s big enough for me. I’ve pictured myself with the last veil in my hand, my small boobs out in the open, mouth ajar, shouting:
“Come here. Look at me. This isn’t the anatomy of a man or a woman. This here, is the body of light, if light had a door. This right here is a slice of God.”
I’m an only child. I was raised largely by the television, the radio, the Vision paper and old editions of Men’s Health Magazine. Much that happened in the world around me went by as a cloud. I was always excited about other kids though. I never cried about going to school. Yes, I loved my little worlds in the books and the screen but I loved being around people. For the longest time I remember doing the things that the other kids did, and enjoying them too. Class was class, but I loved the outdoor activities. PE was my favourite school period. I got into trouble once for playing too rough with the other kids. Mzee was not not pleased with this. He told the class teacher that he would talk to me about my behaviour. When he finally did, he smiled and told me not to be too rough with the other boys. He knew I couldn’t help myself. I was such a Ssajjabi, originating from a long line of wrestlers. He always whispered to my mother to listen to my musinde as I went up the stairs of the staff housing quarters we lived in. There was such strength in my gait. So much ‘man’ in my step.
My childhood was mostly ordinary except for two things. First, I was alone a lot at home with the help while my parents worked. The second was, I used the staff toilets at school. Always. And for that, I felt special. The kids thought so too. The staff washrooms were never overcrowded, never out of tissue, and the plumbing was never faulty.
I remember my mum telling me once during a bath that no one should see or touch me ‘there’. She pointed between my legs. She said that what lived ‘there’ was my secret and she only knew about it because she was my mother. That conversation has stuck with me to this day.
It’s funny how often people talk about their genitals without talking about them. A lot of our talk during the day is directly or indirectly genitalia-infused.
“Are you single? Are you married?”
“When are you having children?”
Though very commonplace and perhaps even random, there’s something similar in those sentences. Present but unspoken. Implied. There’s a penis behind them, oscillating like a pendulum. A vulva hanging above them like a flower in bloom. I walk in a world that talks like this, yet my genitalia defies definition, transcends language, and is too surreal for the tongue. There isn’t a word in Luganda for what I am or my condition, which is strange because I know they’ve been people here like me since before the coming of the white man. And my people are way too creative not to have made up something by now. But I’ve learnt that this, like so many other things that happen here, is in fact a reality that is unspoken.
I know that now. I’ve made peace with it. Making peace with yourself about something, however, doesn’t guarantee that other people make peace about the same thing too. So the questions and stares never stop. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell genuine curiosity and outright rudeness apart. But over time I’ve transformed the questions into a good laugh. I’ve been asked when I date, am I the man or the woman in the relationship or do I choose which gender to wear, like clothes. One of my favourites is the “do you stand or sit when you pee?” question. The degree of intrusion varies. Sometimes people are just looking for a way to call me the ‘h’ word without actually saying it. Sometimes I don’t even know how to respond because a lot of the time, I just want to be left alone. I sit when I pee.
The first time a boy pulled down my pants so he could see what was underneath, I was twelve. It was during the school communal work hour. Keith, the boy, had threatened to do it before but he had actually never done it. He was a grimy kid riddled with acne. You could scour saucepans with the skin of his face if you liked and they would shine. He pulled my khaki shorts down with all his might and ran across the playing field. He thought it was hilarious. He slapped his knees as he panted. I stood there in horror heavy on my face, my eyes grazing across the field to see if anyone that mattered had seen this, a teacher perhaps. No one that I thought useful had witnessed it. Just some other grimy boys. Keith’s friends. That was my first real encounter with the truth that privacy isn’t a thing that people respect. It’s a fence that people are more than often eager to jump over or push down altogether. Body autonomy exists for some people but is a myth for others. I learnt that day that someone could lay their paws on you and walk away unscathed. There are days when I wish my skin was flammable.
I shrugged off the whole ordeal. Keith running away helped because I was twice his size at that age and I could have sat on him, popped his zits and given him a story to tell his mother. He stayed out of my way for the rest of that day and by the time I saw him at lunch the following day, there was no more anger in me. All my life, people have undressed me. With their eyes. Some, like Keith, will use their grubby hands at the slightest opportunity. I’ve always wanted to do it myself. The undressing. The unveiling. Even my nakedness belongs to me. I want my nakedness to be mine. Like Salomé.
Aziz is my best friend. He has been for about a decade and a half. He was there when Keith pulled down my shorts. He is very boujee. He is the kind of friend you have to brief other people about before they meet him. He is very particular. Eccentric. He is the only person I know in Kampala that drinks Patrón. He says he likes how his teeth feel on the glass as he tilts it to let in little sips of the drink into his mouth. He cooks his rice with saffron and his balcony is a mini jungle. I’ve not seen the plants he has anywhere else.
Plants are seemingly the only thing he can commit to. He says dogs are too needy, cats have evil step mom energy, and he says men are only good for sex and if he could, he wouldn’t interact with them at all. I once came to see him and he’d just had a hookup and his date for the day was too relaxed and showed no signs of leaving. Aziz was mad. I found him on the balcony killing aphids with his hands. He picked them out of the kalanchoe leaves and squashed in between his thumb and index finger.
“Owaye nga onyiize.”
“Oyo agaanye okugenda,” he whispered.
“Muwadde eddakiika ttaano. Bweziwela nga tannavawano nga mugoba.”
He was serious. I know him. He is impatient. I went and gave the man the hint to leave because if my friend got up and did it himself, he wasn’t going to be nice about it. He gathered himself and made for the door. He waved bye but Aziz didn’t even look in his direction. He (Aziz), had gotten his nut and couldn’t care to be bothered.
“Why have them over if you cannot stand them?” I asked, stifling a laugh.
“What can I say? They make me feel good. My body wants them but I have no use for them beyond the physical. I don’t know how to explain it beyond that. Like him, the one who just left, has the recovery time of a rabbit but oh, I hate how he talks!”
I shook my head, bewildered. I had very little personal experience with things of this nature. Sex. I wouldn’t even know where to start, but there have been times when I found a person so attractive I felt my stomach fall into a pit. That’s how I know I’m not asexual. I am celibate. Indefinitely.
I’ve always wanted to have Aziz’s sexual prowess. He talks about his encounters like one would talk about riding a bike or frying an omelette, like it’s something he could do even in his sleep. Archetypal muscle memory. He changes partners like he does shoes. And they’re always gorgeous. Some of them are married with kids. He shuffles them like Spotify daily mixes. They desire him and above all, he doesn’t need them. He is powerful. I want this. Okay, not this exactly, but to a certain degree. I just want someone. At this point, I don’t care who. I want earth shattering sex. I also want the person not to just leave as soon as we are finished. I want them to stay. I’ve always wondered how he feels after these little meetups. I wonder how he never feels empty. In my mind, with each encounter, a bit of him chips away like a piece of clay off an anthill. The gag is, it isn’t like this at all. Aziz seems to draw from a never drying well of self sufficiency. That’s something I’m very envious of.
I’ve heard people describe orgasms as small deaths. Women’s anatomies allow for them to have multiple of these in just a single session. I imagine women’s orgasms to be like flipping through tv channels while all your favourite shows are playing and you can choose what you want to watch for say, ten, five, six minutes. Simultaneous pleasure. Mind blowing. Men can only have one at a time, recover and then collect another, if their energy allows. Aziz says an orgasm is like holding a sneeze in your private parts: first, a tingling sensation, and then an explosion. The prostate ones, he says, are even more intense than the ordinary penile ones. I don’t think I have a prostate. I’ve never had an orgasm either.
Aziz was there when I started my period. This occurred around the same time as the shorts-down issue. It was just after my thirteenth birthday. I felt a warm wetness sliding through me at assembly, trickling down the hairs on my thigh. I moved to the back of the queue. Every muscle in my body was clenched. I was trying to keep it in. I stayed at the back and saw the nurse immediately after we were dismissed. She told me to lay down as she called my parents. So what was I now? A hairy girl? The human body has a mind of its own. It stays mostly unfettered and does whatever it decides to do and doesn’t ask for permission. I stayed home for the rest of the school term. I felt dejected. I wanted to crush myself into a powder.
I’ve read in two of my favourite author’s books, how they felt a deep aversion towards reproduction. I’ve felt it too. The first time I felt like that was the day of the assembly. I wanted it out of me. The part of me that was making me bleed. I wanted to have it cut out. I didn’t want children. That wasn’t a dream of mine. To totally incinerate the possibility of childbearing, my favourite author underwent a psych evaluation after which they were cleared for a hysterectomy. With the required resources, I would go as far as that. However, whatever I lack in finances I make up for in unsubstantiated levels of hope and self confidence. This womb isn’t going to kill my joy unless I let it. It has become one of those things I don’t need but still possess, like used 3D cinema glasses. And besides, it isn’t like I’m having any sex at all. So, how’s that for natural contraception?
When my parents started noticing these new changes about me when I hit puberty, my father shut down completely. He seemed very sad for me which I think was a bit of an overreaction on his end because it was I who lived in this body. This strange marvel of a vessel. It was I, carrying it around. It was I, on the receiving end of stares. It was I, dealing with intrusive questions and strip searches by kids. It was I who was such a rarity that people couldn’t help but notice me. Awe. Curiosity. Concern. Pity. Name it. It was all attention. It wasn’t a good or a bad thing. It was just a thing that happened. I wasn’t invisible. I could never be. And that ought to stand for something. Mum had to keep it together. She saw her man falling apart over me and she had to step up. This wasn’t work to which she could delegate another person. I was hers. Her beautiful oddity. She didn’t have the luxury of taking off her parental gloves and taking breaks like Mzee. Mum moved the world for me. She still does.
Being good in school helped quite a lot. Being the hardest worker in the room was a sure way to not only fit in, but to be both outstanding and revered. It had true value. It was tangible social currency. I was an oddity, albeit a bright one. Aziz was a class below me. He never missed an academic assembly. He collected academic accolades like taxes. And when God gives, He gives with two hands. Aziz is rich too. He comes from old money. That is perhaps a fraction of the reasons why his partners are disposable. I didn’t collect as many awards as he did but I was top of my class for all the national exams. Two of these times, the best in the country. I have a long memory and I write really fast. That was all it took, I think. I remember my father telling me at the start of each school term that if I worked hard enough, the world’s doors would open, infinitely. Well, that was true, in part. It could get lonely though. That is the bit he left out.
I’ve spent a lot of my short adult life trying to fit my life into compartments to keep the colour of one area from spilling over into another. I’ve tried to keep my gender in a seperate box from my career. I’ve tried to store my sexuality (non existent as it is) in a whole other drawer. Caked in dust. You could write whole sentences with your finger in the brown cast of dirt particles. I’ve also tried to separate my sex organs from the rest of my body so that I can be a whole person with or without them. But then I go to shower, and there they are: my body and mind in dissonance. I don’t know if other people are as hyper aware of their bodies as I am.
I’ve heard in the past and recently from a TV show that I really love, that babies wail the way they do when they’re born because they’re spat from the ultimate safe space (their mother’s bodies). The act of ejection itself – dramatic. Traumatic, even. Mother Nature loves pizzazz. So, babies have to learn how to breathe on their own and they have to learn to do it fast. The world demands speed, demands urgency. They learn that they have hands, a mouth, hair, eyes, and there is wind blowing over them. Into them. They scream so loud their own cries startle them. Then they forget and they remember again. And they remember and forget again. Until they realise that they just are and that the world isn’t that bad after all, then the cries become less and less. I felt exactly like this when my boobs started to come in. I felt like that. Just without all the screaming. The existential question became, what was this now? Who was I? What was I? A man? A woman? Neither? Both? Was I my body? Was I a mere collection of parts?
Mirrors for me have always been a place of synchronicity. A place of alignment. The kind that they do to car tyres. Your face is your face. You know it’s there even when you don’t see it. In the absence of a mirror, you can pass your hands over it and do the seeing that way. Sometimes I need reminding that I am. Spirit. Flesh. The flesh, evidence of the spirit and other metaphysical things. The breadth of my human existence is way beyond the physical. Way beyond just my reflection. There is more than an ocean of information, a whole universe, in a single strand of hair. It is amazing to think about. I am all these things. Even the ones I don’t live in constant awareness of. Sometimes, I wish I could do that for every part of my life. To be aware of things in waves. I’m not wrong for thinking I’m bigger than I actually am, much greater than I let on. Vaster than what the mirror tells me. Invisible wires swirl around me. Invisible arms. I am louder. More alive than my reflection. I remind myself of that always as I tug on the four hairs growing out of my chin.
I got a call from the hospital about a week ago. The specialist that I’d been referred to by my gynaecologist had finally reached out and wanted to meet me for a consultation. I had waited for that call for about eight months. I called Mum immediately after and then called Aziz. They were ecstatic. They were hoping and praying for me. Each, to the God they knew best. I was also holding my hands out to the universe, hoping a sign would fall out of the sky into my outstretched palms. This was it. I was finally going to get my feminising genitoplasty. That’s something I had wanted since seeing Salomé. Her pubic region, smooth and valley-like. Uninterrupted. Aziz offered to go with me and to pick Mum as well, so we could all go together. So we could hold hands to pray and hope some more. I read up everything I could find on the internet about my condition. Some of the articles I found, I had read before but I still devoured them. Assessing my risk factors. Recovery time. Travel expenses. Requesting leave from work. Moving back into the family home so Mum could nurse me back to health. There was a lot to do. So little time.
I buried myself in the work of John William Money, a renowned psychologist and sexual health researcher. I found his name fascinating, ‘Money’. His folks were right on the money with that name. That’s how you break ground. With a name. I was Alexander before my period happened. I was Alexandra after. And then I was just Alex. The name stood just between the binary and out of it. The extra letters, cut off with scissors and given back to me by myself. Alex Ssajjabi is a handsome name.
Money was of the view that children are psychosexually ambiguous until they’re two years old. Therefore, what was required for one to fit in a “stable normal gender identity” was for one to have unambiguous genitalia and for the parents to give their unequivocal assurance of the chosen gender. The latter was the part that my father got wrong. He had badly wanted a son. But then he had me. Not what he wanted. And not what he didn’t want. In the middle of some axis built from bricks of riotous chromosomes.
On the day of the consultation, Aziz picked me up at 7am for the appointment. He had a grey kanzu on. I wore an orange deera with a matching headdress. I’d not been to the salon in about two weeks. I had to keep my cornrows under wrap. Mum drove herself to the hospital. We found her pacing in the parking lot. She was nervous. She started pinching the cane palm leaflets that formed a live fence around the facility. She saw us pull up and she stopped pacing. She walked to the car, patting beads of sweat off her brow with a paisley pattern handkerchief.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m a little anxious but I’m okay.”
“That’s a nice colour on you.”
“Your father sends his greetings. You know he doesn’t like hospitals.” She defended him.
She didn’t have to, though. Those were Mzee’s ways. He had inwardly resolved not to show up to any medical institution on my account. And that was okay. I had the people I needed with me.
Doctors are seldom late. He arrived at 8:32 am, which was two minutes past the arranged time. The consultation room was cosy. The walls were baby blue. The terrazzo floor had been wiped down with disinfectant, maybe a little too much. It stung the nose. I asked both Mum and Aziz to join me. I sat at the centre of the room facing the doctor and they sat a few feet behind me. The doctor pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and got right into it.
“There is a team of German surgeons that has been doing a lot of work in reproductive health. They’re currently doing a program across East Africa involving intersex persons. There are two remaining slots for patients in need of surgery arising from congenital defects, like yours. We cannot do it from here as safely and as effectively as required, so the patients will have to fly out.”
Silence stood in the room, tangible enough to touch. Even blinking was audible. He looked at us to make sure we were following before he continued. He didn’t have to because we were.
“So, as you must be aware, in handling such cases, medics are supposed to help the family of the subject determine the gender. It is usually best to choose the gender which is more fitting for reproduction and where the physical appearance will be made to look most ‘normal’ for purposes of stable gender identity. It is supposed to be done within the first twenty four months of the child’s life. And any surgery to that effect must also be done within that time frame. From what I’ve gathered, you haven’t had any such surgery yet.”
I nodded and then my mind started to float slowly out of the room.
During my extensive research about all this, I’d read that some people are born like me and never notice. They never have to go to see a doctor once about their condition because it never affects their lives significantly. They had ‘normal’ lives. They didn’t have to experience anxiety walking into bathrooms because their other set of gonads or whatever sat within their body as a silent partner. No one had to know. Sometimes, not even the owner of the organs themselves. Why was I not one of those people? My period had popped up like a party trick. Like some velveteen kerchief from a magician’s hat. And here I was years later, looking at some middle aged bespectacled man yammering away medical lingo into my ear.
There’s a part of Money’s work that’s so fascinating to me. The John/Joan controversy. I don’t know how that juicy morsel of information had skipped my eye for all these years. He dealt with a case of a six month old, one of two identical twins, who suffered a medical accident that caused him to lose his penis. Money recommended that they change his gender of rearing to female and surgical steps were made to modify the child’s body and he was given oestrogen hormones while growing up. They didn’t at any time of the child’s upbringing mention that he had been born a boy. Now, what wasn’t foreseen was that at puberty, he started to reject the female identity. At 25, he married a woman and adopted her children as his own.
“So, the surgery will include a clitoral reduction. As well as a vaginal reconstruction. And we’ve got to thank modern science for these options. Even better, you won’t have to take money out of your pocket. You’ll only be covering travel. The only thing we haven’t discussed is side effects; pain, loss of sensitivity and scarring. Some of which may be short term, others long term, and might require follow up surgery. But that is usually on a case by case basis. There’s a chance that you might not deal with any of that at all”
I heard him. I did. And unlike Reimer, the child in the Money case, I had been presented with the facts. All of them. And this is what I liked about science, the brusque nature with which it told its truths. It was like sitting down and having your dream explained to you and having that dream’s door open before you. I could feel Mum and Aziz’s eyes searing through my back. Heavy is the head of the one who decides. I tugged at my chin like I had done throughout this session. The only thing he omitted to mention was that there are literally no signs in infancy about later gender identity or sexual orientation, whether or not a child has an intersex condition. But perhaps this information was beyond his paygrade. We kept it moving.
“When exactly is the procedure?” I asked.
“23rd. Two weeks from now. But you would need to travel three days prior to undergo observation, run some tests before the actual operation.”
“Okay Musawo. We’ll be in touch.”
He was shocked by that response. Not my reaction per se but the response. The ‘we’ll be in touch’. This was a one time opportunity to get this operation. For free. I wanted to. I did. I wanted to wear a bikini and be at the pool and not have my loin area stared at. I wanted sexual intimacy. Uninhibited sexual intimacy. I wanted to take my clothes off; be Salomé in her last veil. I wanted my body to be smooth. Like the moon rock Siken writes about. The one I scrub with sandpaper, with my large hands in my mind.
“So, what have you decided? You left the good doctor hanging in there,” Mum asked, trying to be as casual and unimposing as she could.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll decide. It’s still a good time to be the third option on the gender part of an online bio form.”
I laughed and they laughed after me. And that was gentle. They couldn’t give me an answer. They couldn’t help me decide. But they were here. Their arms were stretched toward me. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t without help. Aziz and I walked Mum to her car before it slowly started to rain.
About the author:
Ema Babikwa is a writer/poet based in Kampala, Uganda. He has a passion for the law, plants, and books. He exists out of himself most of the day, daydreaming.