They say clothes do not make a person. However, for Lian, Alexis and Androkid, their choice of clothing has seen them harassed, denied employment and even assaulted.
The three came together to start ‘Androgynous Models’, an organisation that seeks to normalise androgynous fashion by ending gender norms in clothing.
Their bio reads: sometimes, she is a he trapped by the limitations of our imaginations.
They will host their first independent show this Saturday at Afra Arts Centre.
Androgyny comes from the Greek words ‘andro’, standing for man, and ‘gyny’ for a woman.
Also known as tomboys, androgynous people, have both male and female characteristics. They dress or style themselves to look like neither a typical boy nor a girl.
Alexis, 22, joined high school clad in a pair of shorts, a shirt and a hoodie jacket.
Upon admission, Alexis was issued with school uniforms, and the teacher who was handing them to new students asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
“After being given the uniforms, you had to walk a distance to the form one class and everyone at school had lined up in their windows to stare at me,” Alexis said.
The rumour that a boy had been admitted to school spread fast.
Things went from bad to worse as sexuality allegations got in the way of academic performance.
“I was a top performer in my school but when I got to form two, the issue of lesbianism was brought up,” Alexis said.
The school announced there were girls sleeping with other girls and the prefects were asked to write down the names of those girls.
“The first person they thought about was me and my punishment from school was that I was not supposed to talk to anyone,” Alexis said.
“If I needed anything, I used to write a letter and give it to the person. They also gave me two weeks off school to go for prayers. The principal would call me the mother of lesbians.”
When Alexis was taken for prayers, it was agonising. It called for some creativity to get it over with.
“I used to cry so the person praying could finish and I could go. When I went back, I stopped interacting with people and became who they wanted so I could complete high school,” Alexis said.
For Lian, 23, after going through discrimination and being accused of spreading lesbianism in school, she dropped out of a national school for a day school.
“They make you feel like you are not a human being, you don’t belong. It really affected me and I had to transfer to a day school,” she said.
Lian’s family did not support the idea of moving from a national school to a day school and accused her of shaming them.
Despite her pleas, they refused to transfer her and she had to ask a family friend to help her.
“Our society, they look at me differently and want to know if I am a she or a he, but I have accepted myself so when they say that, I am not offended. I am confident,” she said.
“My mum has accepted me the way I am but my aunts, brothers cannot accept because they see me as a girl and say I should do what girls do.”
DRUGS AND DEPRESSION
Lian says drug abuse and mental health problems like depression and suicide are brought about by the discrimination they face.
“How you deal with the challenges is by accepting yourself, because then you will be able to deal with the situation and realise nothing else matters,” Lian said.
For Androkid, 22, androgyny is a form of self-identity and expression. She had always lived in denial and never accepted herself as a tomboy.
“Even when I was young, my mum and friends used to call me a tomboy because I always did tomboy things, but I never really accepted myself,” she said.
By the time she was in high school, she learned to accept herself and everything changed.
“I met people who are like me and I accepted because before I thought it was something that was not normal,” she said.
However, she says the decision has seen her get harassed in the streets and once even fired from a job.
“There was a certain job I was doing and at first, I don’t think my employer realised I was a tomboy, but later after a while is when she did, and shortly after that, I was fired,” she said.
“Other employers would tell me that my choice of clothing will have a great impact on me being denied jobs or being fired from jobs.”
Walking on the streets has been made difficult because of sexual and physical harassment.
“They always ask if you are a boy or a girl. Some even tell you because you are dressed in a masculine manner, you need to show them your manhood,” Androkid said.
Lian was randomly attacked by a man as she was waiting for a bus home, while Androkid was followed by a woman chanting ‘Sodom and Gomorrah has come’ for almost 20 minutes.
“The man came up to me and started accusing me of being a lesbian, said I was stealing their wives, and he was slapping me before other people stopped him,” Lian said.
Alexis added for safety reasons, there are streets in Nairobi they avoid. However, it is safer never to confront the perpetrators in case they gang up.
“In town, you hear stories of androgynous people being killed, beaten, robbed because they tried to fight back harassers, so the best thing to do is ignore and go about your business,” she said.
Acceptance into the family is also hard because of the perception they are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“In our society, because lesbianism is a sin, when a parent sees the way you dress and listens to other people’s stories about you, you might end up homeless,” Androkid said.
The idea to do fashion shows was inspired by the need to normalise masculine women and show the society they exist.
“Fashion is our medium of advocacy and we are hoping to create safe spaces for other people like us,” she said.
Formed in 2018, their model organisation has 10 models and over 20 members, some of whom double up as designers.
The three say despite receiving rape and death threats, they will continue to advocate for androgynous people.
Other perceptions people hold of them is they want to be men or are cursed.
“When a video of us rehearsing went viral online, we received threats of people saying they would rape us or kill us because of stealing their girlfriends, but we have no option but to continue,” she said.
They add police action is slow to none, and it is better to stay quiet than report to them.
“We are normal people and being me does not mean I am queer. Also, we are educated and we should be employed without bias because of our clothes,” Lian said.
They are confident one day people will understand who they are.
“Fashion was the only channel we could use to be a voice and show people we exist,” Lian said.
“It’s in the process of picking because it is hard for people to accept, so we are just trying to advocate everywhere and maybe one day, they will come to understand we exist.”
Njeri Mbugua/The Star