KAMPALA, Uganda — I was born a boy, Ceasar Kambugu, in a bourgeois suburb called Bakuli, on the outskirts of Kampala, to two loving middle-aged parents. As I grew into a transgender girl, it was a process my family couldn’t quite understand. The word transgender is absent in our local dialect, Luganda.
My parents and siblings didn’t ridicule me, but at the same time, they found my unconventional expression of gender and sexuality disconcerting. It was the elephant in the room that we chose not to discuss. I was referred to by masculine pronouns. It seemed simpler that way. My family was very protective of me — perhaps as a result of my peculiarity — but even with that protection I was still often bullied, by peers, insensitive teachers and passers-by.
On a more personal level, I craved intimacy but couldn’t risk exposure. In high school, among pubescent boys raging with hormones, I was repeatedly abused, sexually as well as physically. It was the only love I received, it was the only intimacy I understood, and for some reason, perhaps because it reaffirmed my femininity, it sufficed: the benefits outweighed the pain.
The stigma I’ve experienced is small compared to what many of my Ugandan transgender counterparts are living through. Many of them have been abused and driven out of their homes by their families, shoved into the ruthless world of sex work, exposed to the HIV virus, or worse. In a recent incident, a transgender woman sex worker was harassed and undressed by police on the street; the humiliating event was caught on film and later aired on national television.
Looking back to two years ago when I found and became a member of the Ugandan lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) movement, I breathe a sigh of relief. I am now 27 years old — a late bloomer — and I don’t know if I would have made it much longer without the support of this community.
I now work as a program officer with the Trans Support Initiative Uganda (TSIU), an organization that fights for social justice for intersex, transgender and gender non-conforming people. We use a variety of approaches to build visibility around transgender issues and empower our membership, currently 45 strong. These include strategic litigation and advocacy — for example, around the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would impose the death penalty or life in prison for certain kinds of homosexual acts — as well as helping our members achieve economic empowerment and providing them with access to health and psychosocial rehabilitation services.
For me and many transgender Ugandans, the LGBTI movement is an oasis amidst turmoil. But of course, it isn’t without its own perils. At TSIU, there is tension between achieving the visibility we want for transgender issues and providing a safe space for our members. Due to obvious security reasons, the transgender community in Uganda must often exist underground. We work confidentially and keep a low profile to provide for our members’ safety, but even then it is difficult to convince people to join. At the same time, that approach constrains us in our visibility-building efforts in local communities.
However, we’re seeing progress. Ugandan culture is tight-lipped about issues of sexuality — heteronormative and certainly otherwise — and much remains to be demystified and debated about its actual stance on LGBTI issues. Constructive public dialogue about them has been slow to pick up speed, but people have begun talking.
Cleo Kambungu is a member of Trans Support Initiative Uganda (TSIU). She is currently conducting research on access to health care for transgender Ugandans.