Recently, I heard Tatenda speak at an event at Joe’s Pub, the dinner theater venue at The Public Theater in Manhattan. Her story hit me in the heart - a gut punch to the soul. It made me realize just how privileged I am as a cis white gay man. More than that, however, it made me realize how to live my life with conviction and passion. Tatenda showed me that in the face of adversity, giving up is not the answer. The transcript for her talk is below. First, watch Tatenda’s story shared at SpeakOut: Stories of Pride 2018.
The following is a transcript of a talk given at This Alien Nation.
My name is Tatenda Ngwaru. I was born intersex. For those who do not know what it is, it is a condition when a child is born with ambiguous organs and they can not tell which sex it is. In simpler form, born with both sexes.
I came to America seeking asylum because, in my country, this condition is regarded a shame and a laughing matter. Also because it is attached to the LGBTQ community, it is regarded illegal.
People are bullied and convinced to never reveal their true identity which causes suicide and endless pain and a feeling of rejection in people's lives.
When I was a child, my parents did not know I was intersex, because in Zimbabwe we do not have doctors who are specialists, so they didn’t have a way to find out what was up with me when I was born. Because it wasn’t effecting me health-wise, my parents decided to raise me as a boy.
I got my first period when I was in school, wearing a boys uniform. In Zimbabwe, boys wear boys’ uniforms, and girls wear girls’ uniforms – which is annoying. When I got my period, it was evident to my parents that I was a woman, even though I knew already. I never doubted it. I didn’t have any tangible information to prove that I was a woman. Having my period was in the words of my hero, Ms. Oprah Winfrey, my ‘a-ha’ moment. I wish it had happened earlier.
I had to change schools that very same week because every student at that school was bullying me and drawing pictures of me on the boards and making fun of my body.
At the time my parents convinced me to continue living as a boy. They did this to protect me, because they knew the community wasn’t going to be kind. But the bullying continued even though I dressed like a boy. I was developing boobs, which I was trying to bound, so that my chest would look flatter.
After college, I moved to South Africa. I knew I could probably find a doctor who would know more information, and I was told I was intersex.
Being LGBTQI is illegal in Zimbabwe, so no one wants to do that sort of work openly there. I came back to Zimbabwe and I started running an organization called TRUE IDENTITY for intersex and transgender people. I wanted to promote their rights. Before we knew that I was intersex, I had been living as transgender because that was the only thing I knew. I didn’t have the terminologies when I was growing up.
I started support groups secretly because it was illegal. I received funding . I tried to create a dialogue between the community and the transgender and intersex people, to create understanding and awareness and try to normalize it.
I was physically and emotionally abused for this work by the community, and sometimes the police would raid our offices to try to find names. People would make ignorant comments like “You are an abomination to the culture. You are the reason we don’t get rain. You are a taboo.”
I decided to leave when my life got into danger. What really made me leave was when I realized it was going to harm not only me, but my parents. My father gave me his last dollar and said, “I will buy you a ticket. Go somewhere where you will be accepted as a human, and a citizen who deserves human rights.” At the time, Obama was President of the United States. My father said, “If Obama hears of you, he is going to meet you and you will change the world together.” Oh the dreams and hopes of a loving father to his queer child. All my life I have worked with hope and faith and instinct. So, I thought, “This is my best bet.”
I was hopeful this place would accept me with open arms. America is the land of dreams. That’s what we hear in the music and in the lifestyle. My favorite person is Ellen Degeneres – and she has her own program and she is a lesbian woman. I watched Oprah Winfrey (my whole life) as a black woman killing it on screen and I thought, “Wow that is a developed country.”
What they portray is not exactly what you find here.
I had $60 in my pocket. When I got to LA I didn’t know anybody. So, I got to the airport, then used the $60 to go to the LA LGBT Center. I said, “I am homeless, I have no dinner tonight, I have nowhere to sleep, will you please help me?”
I slept outside the LGBT Center for two nights. When it comes to housing and resources, they do not help. The only available resources are legal and health help. They say their policy does not allow them to help individuals.
Then I wrote on facebook I said I need help. A stranger in New York said he would buy me a one way ticket to New York.
Then I started couch surfing. From then, it would just be like that.
“What did I get myself into?” I often asked myself.
I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have money. As an asylum seeker, I was not allowed to work. It took me one year to get work authorization and social security.
The president says immigrants are the ones doing illegal stuff on the street. How do you expect them to live when you don’t let them work?
In America, instead of being welcomed with open arms, I felt ignorant.
People do not know what intersex means. Even within the LGBTQ community. This was the community I was supposed to find much more sympathy and be allowed to have a say. My heart was further broken after finding out about the infants whose decisions are made for them by the health facilities and parents to have unwanted surgeries, and how many intersex people cry over their body being violated like that when they become adults. This is happening as we speak in America and across the globe. Intersex people mostly feel robbed of their rights and body after this happens. This further silences them and make them feel powerless.
I knew then my job was not even nearly finished. In fact, I realized it was just beginning. And even now, two years later, I’m still struggling.
All I want to do is speak. All I want to do is educate and learn and grow. And raise awareness. The only way we can break the barriers is to familiarize people with what is going on with intersex people. It’s a biological thing, its not a choice. Most of the intersex people I met in America are white. In the black community they think it’s a foreign language. When I came here I realized intersex people are not celebrated in communities of color. They don’t see it, so they are not aware of it. We are not represented on platforms, in the media, or anywhere else.
Ignorance and hate and stigmatization does not bring me down because I know I represent so many voiceless human beings who live with so much pain. In fact it gives me so much strength to want to break those barriers. It is my only purpose for living.
As a black woman, who is intersex, an immigrant, and an asylum seeker, it sounds as if right now America's system was built to strike me down but, still I rise like an eagle.
Not a day goes by I do not miss home and my parents and the love that they gave me, I want to go back. I want to go back to my country and my family.
There is a documentary coming out about me. The people who were filming me travelled to Zimbabwe to film my parents. I saw the rough cut of the documentary and it broke my heart to see my parents, because I haven’t seen them since I left. I haven’t gotten my asylum yet, so I cannot invite them to visit. Getting asylum takes years. There are people who are still waiting who came way before me. I can now work but I cannot travel outside the country and I can’t see my parents. All of these things weigh on my brain every morning when I open my eyes.
So all that pain, I choose to build beauty out of it so that anyone who is going through any form of struggle will be inspired by my resilience.
I want to continue speaking so that other Immigrants who are here and are planning to come here will know they are not alone. I want to continue speaking so that any woman or man who has something that society says he/she should be ashamed of will know that nothing can ruin your spirit and it is your world to conquer.
It is your platform to demand a seat. It is your freedom to claim.
Now for everyone who is here, who is listening to this, I have an ask. Please take out your phone, Intersex awareness day is on the 26th of October. Help me share about this day, help me share about me and tell your coworkers, your friends, your lovers, your parents, even your enemies. Light a candle with me on this day and demand rights on our behalf.
My friends, my fellow panelists, I come as 1 but stand as 10,000.