The Global African: Repression in Egypt & Black Transgender Lives Matter

The Global African host Bill Fletcher looks at these stories with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a Cairo-based independent journalist, and Monica Yorkman, a Baltimore-based transgender activist.

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BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll give an update on Egypt. We’ll also examine issues facing the black transgender community in the United States. That’s today on The Global African.

I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Welcome back, and thanks for joining us today.

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FLETCHER: Following the death of 13 leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, Egypt, the organization has called for a mass uprising. The deaths were almost certainly at the hands of the Egyptian police, and the killings are yet another chapter in the fight for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s current government.

We’re now joined with our guest, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who’s an independent journalist based in Cairo. He’s a correspondent for the TV radio program Democracy Now! and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

Sharif, welcome to The Global African.

KOUDDOUS: Thank you for having me, Bill.

FLETCHER: So, Sharif, in brief, the current situation, there were various leaders from the Morsi administration who have been jailed and condemned. But there’s also been a spate of other condemnations of activists, protesters, who have challenged the current administration. So could you just–how should we understand the situation?

KOUDDOUS: Well, Egypt is–Egypt’s been controlled by a regime that is going increasingly authoritarian, increasingly statist, and increasingly repressive. And so we’ve seen, as you mentioned, the main political opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, be the main victim of this repression. Its leadership is in jail, most of them convicted to lengthy prison sentences, many of them convicted to death. But not only its leadership; its middle ranks and the rank and file have also been rounded up and thrown in prison. Many of them have been killed.

This targeting of opposition is not restricted only to non-Islamist voices. So we’ve seen any and all opposition voices, any and all dissenters to the current regime targeted. These include some of the revolutionary activists that were at the heart of the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak, but also it includes journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently put out a report saying that it’s the highest number of journalists in prison in Egypt since it began keeping records in 1990. We’ve seen trade unionists thrown in prison, civil society activists, human rights advocates, LGBT, members of the LGBT community as well. In the past two months, we’ve seen a spate of forced disappearances of mostly young people, who are picked up by, usually, plainclothes officers off the street and go missing for weeks, later turning up in some prison somewhere.

And we’ve also seen this come with a whole host of laws that are being issued by decree. Egypt hasn’t had a legislative parliament for the past three years. The Sisi regime has passed dozens of laws by decree, many of them very draconian, including a very notorious anti-protest law that effectively banned all demonstrations in Egypt. And this is by a regime that came to power largely on the back of public protest. They have delayed imposing a capital gains tax, a move that even the IMF was critical of, because it places the cost of financial restructuring and cutting the deficit on the poor. They canceled a 5 percent surcharge on the highest earners just nine months after it went into effect. At the same time, they’re cutting fuel subsidies and devaluing the pound. And these put economic pressures on the poor majority.

And they’re now considering a very, very draconian antiterrorism law that would in effect put Egypt in a constant state of emergency. It includes very draconian amendments that would create a parallel judiciary, in effect, impose a minimum two year sentence for journalists who publish things that contradict the official state narrative. NGOs are being shut down, with at least 400 closed just this year alone, many of them belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The government accused groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of supporting terrorism for issuing critical reports.

FLETCHER: During the Morsi administration, despite the fact that he was elected, there appeared to be a fairly high level of repression that was going on under that administration against various social forces. Are we looking at a situation of chickens coming home to roost? Or is this something different?

KOUDDOUS: Well, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. The Muslim Brotherhood, during its brief time in power, made it very clear that it wasn’t trying to really reform the state and reform state institutions and fulfill many of the goals that we can call were at the heart of the revolution, but rather was trying to be the new elite and have its part of the post-Mubarak cake, if you will. And we saw them really placate the army and the police, grant the army in the Constitution that was written by a body dominated by its members, grant the army all of its privileges and give it its autonomy in the state. It said the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t seek or the Morsi government didn’t seek to hold any of the police officials to account for the killing of hundreds of protesters. We saw them spurn a draft law that would have guaranteed the right to form independent unions. They criticized journalists and media critics and brought cases against them.

FLETCHER: I want to pick up on that issue about the intensity of the repression. First of all, in the mainstream media in the United States you don’t really get a sense of this intensity of the repression. But I was wondering whether the disintegration of Libya and the rise of the Islamic State have contributed to, I don’t know how to put it, but a sort of tolerance of the repression going on in Egypt.

KOUDDOUS: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think the disorder in the Middle East and in the region, with Libya basically collapsing, with the civil war in Syria, with what’s happening in Yemen, there’s–the regional disorder is a very big factor. You hear that a lot in the local media and statements by regime officials saying, at least we’re not like Syria or Libya, justifying these kinds of crackdowns domestically.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power on the promise of bringing order and stability to Egypt, and the war on terror was really his raison d’etre. And he came on the promise of eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood and eradicating all types of militant threats. And despite this, you know, state repression and very draconian laws that are being put forward, the level of militancy is only increasing. And so we’ll have to see how this plays out.

FLETCHER: The opposition, you mentioned, is divided. First of all, why? And second, are there any efforts at building some sort of united front against this period of repression?

KOUDDOUS: Well, when we discuss opposition, we have to realize that the opposition in Egypt includes the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was the main opposition during the Mubarak era, the main political opposition. And they formed this alliance with liberal groups, with revolutionary activists, for those 18 days that overthrew Mubarak. And they quickly split apart.

So when I say it’s divided, the main fault line is the divide between Muslim Brotherhood and these liberal groups, and that won’t be mended anytime soon. Liberal political groups hold the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for a disastrous year in office. Some of them hold them responsible for the rising militancy, seeing them as the grandfather of all jihadi groups in the region. And the Muslim Brotherhood will never forgive these liberal political parties for standing by the military, and many of them cheering and goading on a very bloody crackdown that left over 1,000 people killed, many of them innocent protesters of the Muslim Brotherhood. So that division will not easily be healed.

There’s also political infighting within the liberal political groups over questions regarding of–you know, who’s scrambling for different crumbs that the state is letting go, so things like the parliamentary elections law, how much do you support the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, and these sorts of things. The labor movement has really kept to its own demands and has not really branched out into political demands. So this is a problem with this fragmentation.

FLETCHER: Sharif, one final question. In the beginning, you mentioned in passing about the attacks that took place in the Sinai. Is the military actions that are going on in Sinai, is that political? Is it secessionist? Is it related to the Muslim Brotherhood? Or is it something independent?

KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s very hard to know exactly what’s happening in the Sinai. The military has banned reporters from entering the area, so it’s very hard to get independent information. The main jihadist group that is operating there is called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis that used to focus largely on attacking the pipeline that exported gas from Egypt to Israel. Following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the insurgency in the Sinai really ramped up with, we saw, an increasing number of attacks on police and military positions.

And this group has, late last year, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The extent to which they get any real support militarily or financially from the main Islamic State group that has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria is questionable. This may just be more of an ideological alliance.

However, this group has very heavy weaponry. They include MANPADS, these kind of shoulder-mounted rockets that have brought down army helicopters in the past. They’ve staged very large-scale attacks not only in Sinai, but also in the Delta and in Cairo itself.

And they have been outwardly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, blaming them for taking part in the democratic process that only brought this kind of disaster to Islamist groups in Egypt.

But there is a real question that we have to look at right now. So, I mean, that group is largely based in the Sinai, and I have to stress that they have really focused their attacks on police and army forces and have not really started targeting civilian infrastructure as far as we know. And that could be–if they begin doing that, that could be a very frightening escalation.

FLETCHER: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, thank you very, very much for spending the time with us.

KOUDDOUS: Thank you, Bill.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. And we’ll be back in a moment.

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The term transgender is one that is frequently mentioned in the mainstream media these days. Ever since Olympian legend and Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Bruce Jenner underwent a very public gender transition, the conversation has shifted, and people are generally more open to dialog on this once taboo subject. Jenner, whose name is now Caitlyn, made her debut on a highly publicized issue of Vanity Fair. On the cover, she was wearing makeup and a corset, and throughout the spread, she depicted the life of a fabulous and happy woman.

However, life as transgender is not as glamorous as the one portrayed through the lens that is following Caitlyn. The transgender community faces high levels of unemployment and poverty. They experience discrimination in all aspects of life. And they especially face violence, particularly transgender men and women of color. Within the first two months of this year alone, seven transgender women of color were murdered, and that is just based on what was reported by the authorities. So despite what the media is showing today, what is life really like as a transgender person, specifically life as a black transgender woman?

That is what we will discuss on this segment today. So stay with us.

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FLETCHER: We’re joined by Monica Yorkman, who is a black transgender woman from Baltimore, Maryland. She is known as one of the city’s most prominent transgender activists and is a founder of Sisters of the T, an independent network of transgender women who believe that self-empowerment is a key to their solutions.

Welcome to The Global African.

FLETCHER: What–was there a moment when you realized, I’ve got to do something, I can’t continue going on this way?

MONICA YORKMAN, BALTIMORE TRANSGENDER ACTIVIST: Only in the sense that I think there was a moment of self-realization when I realized that my outsides really weren’t matching my insides, and only in the sense that I had really gone as far as I could pretending to be a man, because there are certain advantages in living this world as a male. There are. But there are certain disadvantages, too, because there is a part of me that felt like a hypocrite, because there were friends who knew for a long time that I wasn’t this male that I was pretending to be. I had a best friend who told me I was in the closet with the door open. Okay? So there were people who knew. And some of them were my students, because I was working in education.

And so there was a point where I had to take stock of all that and ask myself, are these advantages really worth it? And so there was a point where I had to decide how I was going to spend the rest of my days, because at some point you have to take stock of your life, and I had to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life, if I was going to live the rest of my life perpetrating or if I was going to live the rest of my life true to myself. And I know fear played a part of it, because there’s a risk of losing everything. And so that’s one of the risks that comes along with transition. You run the risk of losing everything. I did lose a job a job behind it. But the truth is is I gained a peace of mind and I gained a self-confidence. I can’t say I gained self-worth, ’cause I’ve always been worth something, but I’ve gained a self-confidence that I frankly wouldn’t trade for anything.

FLETCHER: You were talking earlier about harassment. How does it play out?

YORKMAN: In this city, harassment plays out, especially for trans women of color, at the street level, especially with men, especially with black men, and even with law enforcement–and one of the most disappointing parts is with law enforcement, because what happens is it leaves us in a situation where we’re not supported, and that creates an increased level of danger.

You know, imagine being in a situation where you’re going about your everyday business. I had a situation where I was leaving a market after going shopping, and I noticed that a man was following me. And so I’m forced to make a quick decision–and it was an uncomfortable decision–to try and find a way to flee or to stop and fight. I mean, you’re talking about the ultimate fight-or-flight situation, because the other option was to call the police, and my history has taught me that calling the police doesn’t work out well for me. You know, I’ve had situations in the past where I’ve called the police to ask for help and the police ended up accusing me of things or just not being a help at all, or I had a situation where I called the police and I was fighting with the man and the police arrested me. So there are situations where the police actually make matters worse. You know. And then there are also potentials for police to engage in their own forms of misconduct and harassment. So it’s a no-win scenario.

And so that creates an additional level of danger. It’s an additional level of danger that often perpetrators know. And so that makes them more dangerous. If they know that a potential victim such as myself has no help from the police, then that kind of gives them free rein to do what they want.

My daughter asked me why I don’t want to carry a weapon. She’s asked me, at least carry a knife. And I told her I wouldn’t, because I’m afraid it would actually escalate violence against me.

FLETCHER: One of the things that I came across was about suicide rates in the transgender community. And I wondered if you could talk some about that and what support that exists for members of the transgender community.

YORKMAN: Well, consider what I’ve told you so far. There’s no support from law enforcement. There’s street-level harassment of all kinds. And there’s very little support from families. I’m a rare case. In most cases there isn’t support from families. In fact, most of us have been put out by our families and rejected by our families. There’s very little unity between transgender women and other women and biologically born women. And in our community we call them cisgender women. You know. So what happens is there’s very little sisterhood, even though we’re victimized in a lot of cases by the same men.

So what happens is it creates these isolations. So you have a lot of transgender women who are isolated with very little support, no places to turn, lack of job opportunities, lack of housing opportunities, lack of mental health support, high rates of HIV, and little to do but to turn to the streets, and really not a whole lot of hope to get off the streets.

And then, when we are victimized, we’re portrayed as pariahs by the media. We’re misgendered in the media. If you look at the recent case of Maya Hall, Maya Hall was portrayed in the media as some sort of monster. One of the things that disturbed me most in that case was this is a person that, yeah, maybe was high and was on a drunken joyride on a government facility, but they spent one paragraph on that and then four paragraphs talking about this person being a prostitute and a drug addict. They weren’t killed because they were a prostitute and a drug addict. There were killed because somebody thought that it was okay to kill them. And then with Freddie Gray, this person was a criminal as well, and they were killed, and there was an outpouring of outrage.

So with odds like that stacked against us, sometimes it feels like the only way out is to take your own life.

The other thing to know is this: the average lifespan for transgendered women of color in this city is 29 to 35. So that’s a contributing factor.

FLETCHER: To the age of 29 to 35?

YORKMAN: That is the average lifespan of transgendered women of color in Baltimore.

FLETCHER: And what explains that? I mean, what are the main sources of death?

YORKMAN: Sexual violence, murder–sexual violence and murder, mainly.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you one more question. Who educates the broader community?

YORKMAN: Until now, there haven’t been a lot of other organizations besides ours. Until now, there have been a lot of organizations that are not trans organizations that have done this. And some have done an okay job. A lot of them have not.

One of the things that we strive to do is to implement real changes. But more than implement real changes, we strive to get people to see that it’s to their benefit to make the changes, to look for trans people to hire, and to seek out talented individuals. I’m pointing to myself. About five years ago I wrote an article called “Black Transgender Professionals in Maryland” that I couldn’t get published, because I was at a roundtable with ten black transgender professionals that were from Baltimore, and we were looking at each other and wondering why nobody knew about us, you know, three doctors, two professors, and five educators. And it was just like, okay, so we’re all here. And when we look at the media, the media only shows prostitutes and men in drag pretending to be trans whipping off wigs and fighting.

FLETCHER: Right.

YORKMAN: You know.

FLETCHER: That’s right.

YORKMAN: And so what the push is is against the images that are being pumped out about who we supposedly are. So what we realized is the narrative is not going to change until we change it.

So part of what my organization is about is changing that narrative. And so we’re beginning to show up more in public. And, yeah, it’s surprising to people when they show up, when we show up, and they go, you’re an educator, you have a PhD. Where were you? Where have you been?

But then there’s another side of it, too, that’s very threatening. So when we come through the door and we’re professionals and we’re not the snapping girlfriend, you know, it’s very threatening.

FLETCHER: Mhm. Indeed.

YORKMAN: Yeah. So sometimes they’re glad to see us, sometimes they’re not so glad to see us.

FLETCHER: Monica Yorkman, thank you very much. Appreciate it. You take care.

YORKMAN: Thank you.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll see you next time. Take care.

End

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