Bats And Girl-Friends

Interview with Barbara, an Ivoirian transvestite, by Taina Tervonen

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In Woubi chéri, a documentary by Laurent Bocahut and Philip Brooks, the Ivoirian transvestite, Barbara, introduces us to the terms « woubi » (« he who acts like a woman »), and « yossi » (« he who stays a boy »), only distantly related to the usual – Western?- concepts of homosexuality, bisexuality and transvestism. Homosexuality is still a taboo subject in Cote d’Ivoire and very few people are as open about it as Barbara.

What’s it like to realise you’re a woubi?
When you don’t know anything about the scene, it’s hard. You have to find the others, because union creates strength, as they say. It’s reassuring. As for the yossis, they recognize woubis. And, anyway, a woubi doesn’t necessary need to be part of the scene to have a love life. I had always had my own wee lifestyle before joining the scene. My first yossi was a school friend … In any case I think God has done a good job. If he made woubis, he must have made yossis too. So, everyone’s happy. But we need associations because when you’re young you’re scared. You often have to leave home and you lose your reference points. In an association, you find people who understand you, who cheer you up. When you find out about your sexuality, it affects your studies, your work. You don’t know whether you should hide it or pretend it’s not true.
In the film, you call yourselves bats. Why?
Bats live by night. In Cote d’Ivoire, woubis are a bit like this. We do everything back to front! They don’t know how to classify us. When I was little I heard a story, and that’s how I knew that bats are our friends. They had to classify the bat but she didn’t belong anywhere. So, the poor wee thing said to herself, « Since that’s the way it is, I’ll belong to my own group. I’ll sleep by day, upside down, and I’ll live by night ». Bats have adapted and so have we.
How do people react to woubis?
In some circles they don’t like to think about it. In others, the subject is broached, people try to understand and ask questions. I encourage them to ask questions, even those they don’t dare ask. But it’s not easy to display yourself as a transvestite. You have to be strong. You have to be serious, like me.
What is day-to-day life like?
Quiet, not too flamboyant. I come and go as a woman. I take a lot of care of myself. I wear makeup, without being vulgar. So, I’m accepted. People are always a bit shocked and stare and everything, but it’s OK. If your make-up’s outlandish, or badly done, that’s when it doesn’t go down well. Our enemies start attacking us …
Has your association, ATCI (Association for transvestites in Cote d’Ivoire), succeeded in changing things?
ATCI was set up in 1992 and has got us some recognition. That’s what we want. Before, we all hid our sexuality and we were persecuted by our enemies. They sensed that we were ashamed, that we were scared. Instead, if we’re all open about it, they’ll stop insulting and attacking us directly. Things won’t change overnight but one day they will. For the moment, we’re doing the best we can. People know about us now. That’s a start.
Isn’t it tiring to have to explain yourself all the time?
I get sick of it sometimes but this is what I am and I want people to respect me for that. I want everyone who comes in contact with me to know that they’ve met a woubi … and a very special one at that! [laughter]On the contrary, here, in Paris, I’m sometimes bored by the fact that no-one notices me in the street! It’s like a rest for the warrior woman. People are tolerant, but I find it a bit dull. I’m so used to having to battle with our enemies.
And what’s it like your families?
It’s always hard for a parent to accept that their child is like this. It’s easier to accept it of someone else’s child. We’re obliged to distance ourselves a bit from our parents. Even if your father or mother truly love you, you always feel that they’re a teensy bit disappointed, that there’s a touch of regret, that they ask themselves what happened. Some parents reject their child – supposedly for life – but they always end up making peace. But when you’re with your family, you always resent them a bit – why didn’t they try to understand you, why did they want to change you, etc. These days, my family are the woubis and the yossis.

///Article N° : 5487

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