The Third Sex: The Curious Case Of Audrey Mbugua

The first time I visited the South East Asia countries of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia I came across a common refrain. Look out for the ladyboys or katoeys. I was warned by other tourists that some of the most beautiful women could be men. The veterans told me about a physical test, the signs I was supposed to look out for. Check the Adam’s apple, apparently a dead giveaway or the hands. All over the world transgender people are stereotyped and with internet porn, they are reduced to a freak show. The only pictures most people have seen of trans people is as hypersexual pornographic performers, existing solely as a perverted fetish for closet fantasies.

But in Asia I found they were culturally sanctioned as the third sex. Basically individuals, who do not fit into our strict Judeo-Christian ethic, of male or female. Though they face their fair share of discrimination mostly by outsiders, they were accepted as integral to the complex fabric of humanity. In a highly phobic society like Kenya, the very idea of intersex individuals is still alarming and will be probably tied to some biblical apocalypse causing random social panic.

Most people can’t comprehend why a “man” would “want to become” a woman. They assume that it must be for one thing only: a sexual fetish or a mental disorder. Male to Female transsexuals are born genetically wired female and trapped in male bodies. Some seek surgery but specialists are lacking and the procedure is expensive so most have to live with the disparity.

Lately, one intersex, transgender activist has been thrust into our fetid prime time circus. Her name is Audrey Mbugua who was born Andrew Mbugua. The news media has reduced her pertinent issue to simply as the Kenyan “man” who wants his name changed to that of a “woman”. The bias smacks of ignorant prejudice. In a landmark case, Audrey Mbugua, has sued the Attorney General and the Kenya National Examinations Council for failing to recognize her plight. Audrey recounts a distressful tale of discrimination and the repeated humiliation in the face of public officials who are unable to comprehend the different reality.

Intersex is not a disease, a disorder or a medical condition. It is a biological reality that occurs in a percentage of the population and has been hidden. Doctors panic when they encounter “ambiguous” genitalia. Therefore intersex individuals become regular guinea pigs subjected to surgical correction procedures to assign them a gender category that renders them ‘normal’.

Kudos for Audrey who has shown incredible will for intersex persons by breaking the silence and confronting the ignorance and denial of the existence of intersex individuals in Kenya. Audrey enjoys some sympathy simply because she looks like a woman. If she was androgynous, the reaction would be harsher.  Gaining acceptance to live as the gender of your choice is a hard transition.

The reality is that boundaries defining normal keep expanding and that is unsettling. What was considered sexual abnormality has to be re examined. We should learn from cultures older than ourselves who are tolerant to differences. Learn to distinguish sexual orientation from gender and deal with the category of intersex individuals. Different variations exist and we will see more. Gender is a product of socialization, sex is biological.

Lest we forget, despite the fact that we have been around for millennial, being black was until recently abominable.


Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. The problem we have is that we don’t want to open our minds and broaden our thinking. We like to hide behind tradition and religion. I actually saw a comment that she wanted the change becasue she had lost touch with God. I suspect also that one of the difficulties faced by Audrey is the fact that men run they country and 1. They don’t see why a man would want to be a woman and 2. They are afraid they might run into an Audrey only to realize much later she was a he

  2. The worst thing about this cases is that it is the parents who in panic and fear after delivering a baby with ambiguous genitalia, quickly collude with the doctors to have a `procedure’ done when the child is still an infant. And the kids grow up questioning their gender identity and some like Audrey chose to become whom they feel they are.

    I live in India where they are more or less accepted. I did a blog post on the ones in my city. Check it out here

  3. Inter-sex or hermaphrodites face a lot of problems. But Audrey does not fall into that category. She apparently claims that she suffers from GID. That’s a psychological and not a physical matter. Anyway, I await to see what will happen to her case

  4. Hey, there is a difference between a transsexual and a person who is intersex. A transsexual is someone who identifies with a gender that is inconsistent with the sex that person has been assigned. An intersex person is someone born with ambiguous genitalia. Though there are similarities and referencing points between intersex identity and transsexualism, it is incorrect to conflate one into the other. Audrey Mbugua has on several occasions in the media described herself as a transsexual. Your article is thus incorrect. Please change the article accordingly. Though your article is sympathetic towards her cause, and that is very admirable, describing a transsexual this way may actually be offensive to Audrey and transgender and intersex people.

    • Thanks for the clarity Km. The lines are a little blurred between intersex and transgender. I will adjust the piece accordingly,

  5. Wanja Muguongo

    ‘The reality is that boundaries defining normal keep expanding and that is unsettling. What was considered sexual abnormality has to be re examined. We should learn from cultures older than ourselves who are tolerant to differences’ This is a powerful statement Oyunga. I thank Audrey for challenging Kenyans to rethink normativity and to consider who gets left out in a normative world

  6. Knowing my history, as with many other intersex people, has been nearly impossible. It’s been hidden from me by my family, doctors, society. I didn’t even know intersex people existed until I was 21 years old and in college. After an exam with a doctor and a comment asking if I’d had genital surgery for my ‘condition,’ I got curious for the first time and felt brave enough to research it. What I found was life changing to say the least. I’d already started experimenting with my gender and how I would express it, and I’d always felt like something wasn’t quite right about it and my body’s history. Of course having an intersex condition doesn’t imply any particular sexual orientation or gender, but at the time I had such a limited vocabulary and this felt like a justification of my newly-discovered queer identity. I needed hard scientific evidence that there was a cause to all of this, that it was out of my hands to some extent, because I’d been raised to hate and fear people like myself. Gender-nonconforming behavior or queer sexual orientations were things that would literally get you killed. I was brainwashed by an extreme fundamentalist Southern Baptist family and culture, and I really did believe and fear burning in hell and bringing on bad fortune and punishment from a god that didn’t like queer people.

  7. Oyunga Pala in church? am amused. i would rather remain conservative as far as sexuality is concerned.the Audreys case is more of socializtion as propagated by the media. were it genetical why would she fall in love with girls? Its just delusion and a situation of oppossing everything that is Godly.this could never be rationalized

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