Tatenda Ngwaru, a Zimbabwean intersex activist and asylum seeker, spoke about her life and work yesterday at a Civic Life Lunch hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. In 2013, Ngwaru founded True Identity, Zimbabwe’s first organization for intersex people.
At the lunch, Ngwaru was accompanied by journalist Robert Tokanel, one of the co-directors of “She’s Not a Boy” (2019), a short documentary that traces Ngwaru’s journey as an intersex woman and activist. Hope Freeman, the director of the LGBT Center and the interim director of the Women’s Center, moderated the conversation.
The lunch began with a screening of “She’s Not a Boy.” The film described the hardships Ngwaru faced as an intersex person in Zimbabwe, which lacks protections for queer people and where sex between men is prohibited. It also questioned the place of intersex individuals in the LGBTQI community in the United States. When asked if she feels connected to the Pride movement in the film, Ngwaru says she does not feel entirely comfortable within the LGBTQI umbrella.
“Although I do acknowledge what happened here and the history, I was never part of it,” Ngwaru said in the film.
After the screening, Freeman asked Ngwaru about the concerns and demands of intersex people. Ngwaru said invisibility is a major concern of the intersex community, and that its members demand a platform for sharing their stories. Ngwaru also emphasized her marginalization as a black intersex woman, underscoring that intersectional intersex individuals are most in need of a platform.
True Identity, Ngwaru explained, grew out of a need for intersex visibility. The organization includes transgender people because before Ngwaru realized she was intersex, she conceived of herself as a transgender woman. Currently, no one is running the organization because intersex and queer life is so heavily policed in Zimbabwe.
“I feel like I deserted [True Identity] in a way because I wanted to be alive,” Ngwaru said. “No one is strong enough at the moment to carry it through.”
Ngwaru said she has not seen her parents, with whom she is very close, since she left for the U.S. in August 2016. Still, she explained that her work energizes her despite being so far from home. She joked that religion and occasional drinking help her maintain hope.
“I love Jesus, but I drink a little … I speak to my parents every single day, because it’s a reminder of where I come from and how strong that foundation is,” she said.
Moments in the film revealed a more hopeful side to Ngwaru’s story.
“I am a black woman, I am an immigrant and I’m an intersex woman,” she said. “That is something that is just built automatically to destroy me, but from that, I rise.”
She echoed this sentiment in her talk at Tufts.
“When I made the decision to tell my story and be an open book, it’s a responsibility that I took, that I want to see myself following through with, and I don’t want to ever leave it,” she said. “That is the reason why I was born the woman that I am, [to] tell stories, so that I can be a topic in people’s living rooms, and so that … I can change people’s minds for the better.”