Monday, May 5, 2008

Apparently I'm transgender

The last post got me thinking about Functions I've Known and it reminded me of something I'd totally forgotten from my goodbye in Darfur.

My staff knew how much I hated events like that and my pathological fear of dancing so they didn't organize, as initially threatened, a dinner and dancing thing at Marsland, the local restaurant. Instead they did a much more bog standard "gifts and speeches" function in the parking lot of the compound under a red cotton marquee.

It was a combo because two of us were leaving, the other being the head of the women's program, and people were doing speeches about us both. I was quite close with some of the staff and one of them was making a speech and clearly trying to think of the thing he could say that would be the nicest to me. He got stuck, saying "She is like.... she is like.... she is like...." then, you could see in his eyes, inspiration hit: "She is like.... a MAN."

Immediately, the majority of staff, most of whom were men, started cheering and saying "Yes, yes, yes, she is like a man." Every speech about me thereafter included some reference to the fact that I had managed to rise above my lowly sex and relate to them as equals as opposed to as a girl.

Now, obviously, there are issues with this. It is not a good thing that the nicest thing he could think of to say to me was to essentially deny my gender and to denigrate all the, amazing, Darfuri women who were sitting under that marquee. And a better person than I would probably have smiled a gentle smile, laid a hand on his arm, and softlyly pointed out that, in fact, I was not like a man, I was demonstrably and totally a girl and yet, still, he liked me.

In fact, a better person than I, the other honoree, did try to do that, well, she wouldn't have been as gentle, for sure, but she would've gotten her point across. But I stopped her.

Because here is the thing. I was sitting there, in the middle of the desert, under a funeral tent, buried up to my eyeballs in gifts they had used their own money to purchase for me. These were people who had talked me out of violent confrontations with camp leaders, who had defended me against a government that tried to throw me out at every turn, who had invited me in to their homes for weddings and Eid and births and had really been concerned for my safety and sanity when I was trapped out there for 8.5 months and done everything they could to try and make me feel better.

I know it is wrong that they were so gender insensitive when they were trying to compliment me. But, honestly, I wasn't like any woman they knew. I am loud and opinionated and bossy and always take charge even when I shouldn't. Not very Darfuri woman-esque. I wear trousers and shirts that are essentially the equivalent of being naked and have never purposefully covered my head. I sat on the top of trucks throwing down jerry cans, smoked cigarettes with drivers while we waited for a roadblock to clear and generally behaved with so little propriety, in the sense of what a good Fur or Zaghawa or Arab girl would do, that they probably really didn't see me as much of a female.

So I stopped my angry colleague from saying anything and accepted the compliment in the spirit in which, I think, it was intended.

I hope that was the right thing to do.

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