Assistant Professor of Sociology
In 2016, I began making frequent trans-Atlantic research visits to Accra, Ghana. Since that first journey, every time I pass through Kotoka International Airport in Accra, I turn on my recording device. It is my sole comfort in the face of the harassment I expect to face as I pass through the national border. The first time I turned it on was when the British Airways gate agent stalled my check-in because he wanted to know if I was a footballer. While the question on its face might seem innocuous, as a trans* person, I was aware of its gender-policing subtext. I turned on my phone’s recorder because Perry was questioning me as if I had committed a crime. He asked to see multiple forms of ID in addition to my passport, questioned me about who paid for my airline ticket, and wanted to know why I was traveling. When he saw my recorder come on, he quickly informed me that I was not legally permitted to record “official security business.” His uncertainty about my gender was now a matter of national security. But nevertheless, he backed off. Perhaps it was the recorder, or my U.S. accent and passport. It’s hard to tell. Over the next year and a half, I visited Accra 3 more times, recording each interaction with agents at the airport. With the exception of my most recent visit in November 2018, I have always been harassed by some airport employee, whether from Ghana Immigration Service, the narcotics agent, or the gate agent checking me in. This harassment has always been because of my gender. On my last visit, I managed to pass through freely. But I was traveling with my partner, whose gender became a point of curiosity and conversation at immigration.
Yesterday, crazinisT artisT disclosed s/He/it’s* violation at the Praia airport in Cabo Verde. In an Instagram post, crazinisT artisT wrote, “I was convinced they were only searching for an [illegal pussy or dick] perhaps something far beyond that… I only needed evidence of my abuse otherwise no one will believe stories of this kind.”
crazinisT artisT, I am so sorry that this happened to you. It is absolutely not okay. I am thankful for your clear-headedness and vigilance, thankful that you found the voice to speak out about this violence. Our bodies are not crimes. Your body is not a crime.
One of the things that stood out to me was the fact that crazinisT artist said s/He/it traveled with a letter from the National Police Commander and was escorted by a lawyer and other officials. Despite what appears to be the full weight of the law behind s/He/it, s/He/it was still violently searched to satisfy the whims of the airport security agents. What this tells us is that there are absolutely no consequences for this kind of violation. The agents rightly assumed that they can violate gender expansive travelers with impunity.
When I started recording my experiences at the border in Accra, I often asked myself why. I would diligently record the name of the agent harassing me, while knowing in the back of my mind that even if I reported this violation, nothing would happen. But as well, I always wondered if I would even report these agents. Should they be reprimanded, did I want to be the reason they were out of a job? In reality, that last question is irrelevant. What state entity in Ghana has ever expressed concern for the lives of trans* people? From crazinisT artisT’s experience, we see how even with the ostensible backing of the chief of police, the airport agents knew they could act without consequence.
The kind of harassment and violence described above happens outside of the airport as well. In Accra, whenever I have had to interact with a police officer or security agent, I am immediately criminalized by the question “are you a boy or a girl?” The Unartiste Podcast, an Accra-based podcast which discusses popular culture, recently had an episode in which police accused one of the hosts of being a lesbian. His gender-expansive style and make-up bag made him suspicious to the police, exposing him to search and threat of arrest. To avoid further harassment, the host disclosed that he claimed to be U.S. American. His friend said he was from Tanzania. The podcast host and his friend had their wits about them, and recorded this interaction. Recording the ways we are violated is cold comfort.
It is telling that the hosts claim to be from elsewhere to avoid further harassment. As gender-expansive Ghanaians, we know that we have no protection from the state. In s/He/it’s post, crazinisT artisT asks that s/He/it’s experience be shared “until something changes.” We cannot accept the reality that a privileged few, those of us with U.S. accents, letters from chiefs of police, and security escorts might evade the brutality of gender harassment. There is no guarantee that we will be spared. As crazinisT artisT put it, “the next victim may not survive such violence.” S/He/it’s right. But if there are no consequences, there is no reason why police, immigration officers, and other security officials should treat us better.
*crazinisT artisT’s pronouns are sHe/it.
Instagram Post: https://www.instagram.com/p/BrBWl-KFy6u/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Unartist Podcast: https://www.acast.com/unartiste/youre-a-lesbian
Anima Adjepong researches and writes about identity, culture, and migration. They received their PhD in Sociology from The University of Texas at Austin, with concentrations in African and African Diaspora Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. Adjepong is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Simmons University. Their current book project, provisionally titled Afropolitan Projects, is about how middle-class Ghanaians experience themselves as citizens of the Black diaspora. The research is based on participant observations and interviews in communities in Houston, Texas, and Accra, Ghana, and explores how migration, race, and sexuality, shape middle-class Ghanaian identities in these different cities. Adjepong’s published work can be found in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Sport in Society, and the queer African blog, HOLAAfrica amongst other places.
This post was first published at https://animaadjepong.com/blog/2018/12/6/the-borders-are-nightmares