Cleopatra Kambugu, a Ugandan activist who advocates for sexual and  gender minorities, has made history as the first transgender person in  Uganda to have their new gender recognised by the government.  

Kambugu has received her new passport and government-issued photo ID  card, which identifies her as female. The process of getting official ID  recognising her as female was a “difficult” and “intrusive” process, and is a  milestone for the African nation, where the LGBTQIA community is heavily  maligned and marginalised.

“Everything my country does is surprising. Even  now, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Kambugu. 

Kambugu Shares Her Win on Instagram 

Kambugu celebrated the milestone, posting on Instagram, “Today it is  monumental that my country chose to register me as a woman recognising  me as a transgender woman not some deluded ‘boy’. My prayer is two fold,  that this win will be a win for other trans Ugandans and that one day it should not be special for a trans person to be recognized by her country. I made it,  we made it.” 

Kambugu, 35, is the Director of Programmes for Uhai Eashri,  “Africa’s first  indigenous activist fund supporting the human rights of sex workers and  sexual and gender minorities,” which operates across seven African nations.  

Kambugu, speaking on the phone with the Star Observer from her home in  Kampala, said the offical recognition of her gender is important because the  transgender community in Uganda does not have equal access to many  aspects of day-to-day life, including health care, travel and education.

While her personal battle for gender recognition has been won, the fight continues  for the wider transgender community. The government “doesn’t recognize us;  we do not exist,” Kambugu says. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be  done.” 

 Gender Recognition Makes life Easier 

The recognition of her gender now allows for greater freedom, particularly  when travelling, an important benefit in a nation where border crossings  between Uganda and neighbouring countries can be frequent for work and  trade. “Why does someone have to fight to have an ID,” asked Kambugu? “Why  does something have to be a piece of plastic to show what your gender is?” 

Before Kambugu’s gender was legally recognised, travel could be fraught  with uncertainty and discriminatory behaviour, and she was sometimes  required to undress in front of border guards before being given right of entry.  “It has implications on my security, how I walk,” she said.

According to Kambugu there is a common misconception around the transgender  community amongst Ugandans. “Being trans is an issue of gender, not an  issue of sexuality. It’s not who you sleep with, it’s who you walk as in this  world.” 

“Can we not speak about human bodies as though they only appear in two  kinds of ways? I want to push for a conversation where who  you are is a matter of who you say you are, not what someone tells you, you  are,” said Kambugu.  

 A Life of Activism 

The constant labelling of being transgender as opposed to simply being a  human has taken an emotional toll. “When you constantly have to push for life  to allow you the space, you get tired of fighting…why don’t you just give me  space? Why do I have to spend so much money and time and fear in being  able to have an ID?” 

I hope to live in a world where my transness is just another  thing as being tall or short, or the length of my hair length,” said Kambugu in  an Instagram post.  

“I’m 35, I’m tired, I want to get married…I’ve put my life out there, I’ve  committed myself…this might be one of the last things I do for the  movement…I don’t want everything I get to, end up being something  politicised,” said Kambugu.  

Kambugu has been fighting for visibility and equality for the transgender  community in Uganda for years. “I’ve never been a hidden person even  before this. People know on all my social media that I am trans and I am very  outspoken about all issues, including LGBTQIA issues,” said Kambugu. She  looks forward to a time when otherwise unremarkable events, such as getting  government issued ID, isn’t “reportable.” 

Kambugu, whose activism inspired a documentary,The Pearl of Africa,  exploring her ten-year long transition and work as an LGBTQIA activist in  Uganda,  added, “I’ll be happy when my win has multiplied. As of now it’s just  my win….If this ends up being policy that’s what will make me happy.”


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