By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA – Cleopatra Kambugu is a molecular biologist, the star of a Netflix documentary and a prominent social campaigner in Uganda.
She was also assigned male at birth and became one of the first of a small number of Ugandans to have her gender identity officially changed. Now, she wants Uganda to widen the options at its next census in 2023 to include the transgender community.
“We don’t count transgender people on any document … gender is either male or female,” said 35-year-old Kambugu, her short floral dress swishing above black boots.
“You are an afterthought … erased. So can we address the generational, deliberate erasure?”
Kambugu hopes that by documenting the transgender community, it can have a greater voice and more security in a conservative nation where transgender people have no legal status and are often conflated with members of the gay community.
Colonial-era laws banning gay sex remain and gay people have faced arrest, ostracism and violence.
Fridah Mutesi, a lawyer who heads a firm that defends the rights of sexual minorities, said transgender people have been battered, disowned by their families, raped and banished from villages. Most keep their identities a secret.
Frank Mugabi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, declined to comment when asked whether a change to the census would be considered.
Kambugu underwent hormonal therapy and sex change surgery in Thailand in 2015 and has since obtained a Ugandan passport and identity document that state her gender as female.
Born into a family of 14 siblings, she says never felt comfortable with male identity and that a hormonal imbalance gave her female characteristics. In her Netflix documentary, she said she struggled with issues like using a male bathroom or living in a male university hall.
“There are so many times I wanted to commit suicide,” Kambugu said. “I was alone. I cannot imagine another person going through what I went through.”
While a student, a tabloid newspaper published her name, saying she was gay. The injustice, public stares and humiliating jokes pushed her to study for her masters in molecular biology to try to understand the roots of gender identity.