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TEDWomen 2015

Lee Mokobe: A powerful poem about what it feels like to be transgender

May 28, 2015

"I was the mystery of an anatomy, a question asked but not answered," says poet Lee Mokobe, a TED Fellow, in this gripping and poetic exploration of identity and transition. It's a thoughtful reflection on bodies, and the meanings poured into them.

Lee Mokobe - Poet
Lee Mokobe is a 20-year-old South African slam poet and co-founder of Vocal Revolutionaries. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
The first time I uttered a prayer
was in a glass-stained cathedral.
00:12
I was kneeling long after
the congregation was on its feet,
00:18
dip both hands into holy water,
00:21
trace the trinity across my chest,
00:23
my tiny body drooping
like a question mark
00:25
all over the wooden pew.
00:28
I asked Jesus to fix me,
00:30
and when he did not answer
00:33
I befriended silence in the hopes
that my sin would burn
00:35
and salve my mouth
00:37
would dissolve like sugar on tongue,
00:39
but shame lingered as an aftertaste.
00:41
And in an attempt
to reintroduce me to sanctity,
00:43
my mother told me of the miracle I was,
00:46
said I could grow up
to be anything I want.
00:49
I decided to
00:52
be a boy.
00:54
It was cute.
00:56
I had snapback, toothless grin,
00:57
used skinned knees as street cred,
00:58
played hide and seek with
what was left of my goal.
01:00
I was it.
01:03
The winner to a game
the other kids couldn't play,
01:04
I was the mystery of an anatomy,
01:06
a question asked but not answered,
01:08
tightroping between awkward boy
and apologetic girl,
01:10
and when I turned 12, the boy phase
wasn't deemed cute anymore.
01:14
It was met with nostalgic aunts who missed
seeing my knees in the shadow of skirts,
01:19
who reminded me that my kind of attitude
would never bring a husband home,
01:25
that I exist for heterosexual marriage
and child-bearing.
01:29
And I swallowed their insults
along with their slurs.
01:32
Naturally, I did not
come out of the closet.
01:36
The kids at my school opened it
without my permission.
01:39
Called me by a name I did not recognize,
01:42
said "lesbian,"
01:44
but I was more boy than girl,
more Ken than Barbie.
01:45
It had nothing to do with hating my body,
01:48
I just love it enough to let it go,
01:50
I treat it like a house,
01:52
and when your house is falling apart,
01:54
you do not evacuate,
01:56
you make it comfortable enough
to house all your insides,
01:57
you make it pretty enough
to invite guests over,
02:00
you make the floorboards
strong enough to stand on.
02:03
My mother fears I have named
myself after fading things.
02:07
As she counts the echoes
left behind by Mya Hall,
02:12
Leelah Alcorn, Blake Brockington.
02:15
She fears that I'll die without a whisper,
02:18
that I'll turn into "what a shame"
conversations at the bus stop.
02:20
She claims I have turned myself
into a mausoleum,
02:23
that I am a walking casket,
02:26
news headlines have turned
my identity into a spectacle,
02:27
Bruce Jenner on everyone's lips
while the brutality of living in this body
02:31
becomes an asterisk
at the bottom of equality pages.
02:34
No one ever thinks of us as human
02:38
because we are more ghost than flesh,
02:41
because people fear that
my gender expression is a trick,
02:43
that it exists to be perverse,
02:46
that it ensnares them
without their consent,
02:48
that my body is a feast
for their eyes and hands
02:50
and once they have fed off my queer,
02:52
they'll regurgitate all the parts
they did not like.
02:55
They'll put me back into the closet,
hang me with all the other skeletons.
02:58
I will be the best attraction.
03:02
Can you see how easy it is
to talk people into coffins,
03:04
to misspell their names on gravestones.
03:08
And people still wonder why
there are boys rotting,
03:10
they go away
in high school hallways
03:13
they are afraid of becoming another
hashtag in a second
03:15
afraid of classroom discussions
becoming like judgment day
03:18
and now oncoming traffic is embracing
more transgender children than parents.
03:22
I wonder how long it will be
03:28
before the trans suicide notes
start to feel redundant,
03:30
before we realize that our bodies
become lessons about sin
03:34
way before we learn how to love them.
03:37
Like God didn't save
all this breath and mercy,
03:39
like my blood is not the wine
that washed over Jesus' feet.
03:43
My prayers are now
getting stuck in my throat.
03:47
Maybe I am finally fixed,
03:51
maybe I just don't care,
03:54
maybe God finally listened to my prayers.
03:57
Thank you.
04:01
(Applause)
04:03

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Lee Mokobe - Poet
Lee Mokobe is a 20-year-old South African slam poet and co-founder of Vocal Revolutionaries.

Why you should listen

The volunteer-run organization empowers youth in South Africa to fid their voice through poetry and art, offering free workshops, motivational talks, seasonal slams, national/local performances and mentoring. In his own poetry, Mokobe tackles tough social justice and LGBTQ issues. He has performed across three continents and was the youngest and first African coach at the Brave New Voices Festival, which he won in 2015.

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