In October 2021, Cleopatra Kambugu publicly celebrated receiving a new national identity card bearing her preferred gender marker and name.
“My ID says that I am also here,” the Ugandan trans woman and human rights activist said in an interview with openDemocracy. “This is not just my win, it’s also the community’s win,” she added.
This is only the latest milestone for trans people in Uganda in Kambugu’s life. In 2015, she had sex reassignment surgery. In 2018, she received a new passport with her preferred gender marker and name (though getting her new ID card is more significant).
Other trans Ugandans that openDemocracy spoke to were enthusiastic about Kambugu’s ID card, and the precedent it should set – but they warned that gender recognition remains out of reach for most.
“I feel very happy and proud of Cleo,” said Apako Williams, a trans man and executive director of Tranz Network Uganda, an umbrella group for organisations supporting transgender and gender non-conforming persons.
But he also said that officials reviewing requested gender changes on documents seem “more accepting if they think one is intersex”.
Justine Balya, a lawyer for the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) NGO, added that Kambugu’s case doesn’t represent “a progressive legal change,” as she was seen by the state as intersex.
There is no specific law in Uganda regarding transgender people. The Registration of Persons Act 2015 provides for ‘’a child born a hermaphrodite’’ who “through an operation, changes from a female to a male or from a male to a female and the change is certified by a medical doctor’’.
“I had to go through all that. I had my medical documents, which showed the sex change procedure that I underwent, and they gave me the ID,” Kambugu told openDemocracy.
‘Trans people are in legal limbo’
Uganda is well known for its public and political hostility to LGBT people. It is dangerous and risky to live openly as an LGBT person; some have been attacked and killed and LGBT shelters are raided constantly.
Uganda’s existing legislation does not explicitly ban homosexuality; it depends on same-sex relations being interpreted as acts that are “contrary to the order of nature”.
However, in May, parliament passed a new anti-LGBT “sexual offences” bill, which includes “a ban on a sexual act between persons of the same gender”. (The president declined to sign the bill into law and returned it to parliament, saying that many of its provisions are already provided for under other laws. It is unclear when parliament will address the president’s concerns.)
Being transgender is also not explicitly banned. Balya explained: “Transgender people are in legal limbo.”
Balya said that many people have taken advantage of the new ID card scheme to register with their preferred gender marker and name, but if documents were issued previously, it is very hard to change them again.
HRAPF is one of few organisations in Uganda providing legal services to sexual minorities. Balya said they have helped people change their legal names – but most can’t change their legal gender.
“The law still requires one to have a doctor who swears that the applicant has had a ‘complete sex change’,” Balya explained – but hormonal treatment and surgery are hard to access and expensive.
Noah Mirembe, a trans man and co-director of the Ugandan LGBT rights group Taala Foundation, told openDemocracy that legal gender recognition “remains an issue of access to resources, and to the right people”.
He said “the idea that individuals have to negotiate with systems” makes it hard for others to follow in Kambugu’s footsteps, since the ‘average’ transgender person lacks connections to civil servants, lawyers or human rights activists.
“I’m educated, I’ve gone to school, so I’m not scared to challenge things,” Kambugu added – emphasising that many transgender people in Uganda do not enjoy the same privileges as her, and face more obstacles.
‘Passing’ for protection
Most people in the trans community “are struggling with poverty”, so discussions about medical transitioning are rare, according to Williams from Tranz Network Uganda.
This means that many people try to ‘pass’ as a member of their self-identified gender by modifying their appearance, clothes and voice.
“Part of being accepted,” Kambugu said, “is how much you ‘pass’” as a member of your gender. She claims that she was once told to undress by immigration officials in neighbouring Rwanda, to prove that she was a woman.
Trans men, Williams explained, can even ‘pass’ when they meet officials to get documents with their preferred gender. “When we bind our chests and our voices are a bit deep, officials think maybe we just had the wrong names on our documents. But that is hard for transgender women,” he said.
Peace Hope, a 23-year-old trans woman described how her community in northern Uganda had been “terrible” to her, beating her and calling her a “demon” who “would spoil their children”.
Now living in an LBQT shelter in Kampala, she says she relies on “feminine” clothes to help her ‘pass’ as a woman and avoid being beaten or harassed.
Her ID card still bears the name she was given at birth. She said that the news about Kambugu made her hopeful. “I want to change my name too, and [have] hormonal treatments,” she said, “but I have no money.”
“The process of getting my national ID was monumental as it required me to talk to my parents, to revisit that relationship,” said Kambugu.
She also worked with her local council official to secure an important signature, which she says was possible because “I never hid my queerness” from her neighbours.
Kambugu and other activists champion Ubuntu (meaning ‘I am because you are’) – the African philosophy that promotes communality in contrast to the West’s emphasis on individualism – as a decolonised approach to advocating for queer rights in Africa.
She describes how her own transitioning and bodily autonomy also involved a “transitioning of community” – because other people, having seen her live and transition openly, “now know what a transgender person is”.
Williams calls this process “social transitioning” – when a transgender person is “at peace” with their environment, and is “comfortable to shop, to trust people [they] work with and to access services without fear.”
As an example from his own experience, he described how his friendship as a trans man with the relative of a local council official helped him secure the documents he needed to get his ID card.
Mirembe from the Taala Foundation said that Kambugu is probably not the first person to have changed gender on their official documents – though she is the first to announce these changes publicly.
The reason for this, he explained, is people’s fear of a potential backlash or even a recall of their documents by the government.
Kambugu is aware of such risks. Regarding her interview with openDemocracy, “I don’t know how the Uganda government will react,” she said.
But she hopes that talking publicly about her experience will help to “open a conversation between the community and government institutions about transgender people as ‘a third gender’” in Uganda.
First published in Open Democracy under the title "‘This is not just my win’: trans Ugandan wins official gender change". Republished here thanks to Creative Commons. Photo: Cleopatra Kambugu. Photo edit: Inge Snip. All rights reserved.