In a country renowned for its anti-gay laws, Ugandan transman Pepe Julian Onziema makes his own transition a form of activism
My family is from Aru a, a small town in northwest Uganda. Looking back on my childhood, I recognise now that my family raised me as a gender non-conforming person. When I was five, I wore khaki shorts and shirts to school. My school skirt was for when the principal really pressed me to wear it, but even then I’d leave home in a skirt with shorts underneath. My first kiss happened when I was eight or nine during a make-believe game with a girl. I was reprimanded by one of my brothers and there was a lot of backlash from the wider community. That was the first time I was labelled as `gay’ and `homosexual’. I asked my favourite brother to look up the terms in the dictionary for me. I didn’t take them as derogatory words but rather took pride in them. After all, I was the only one. I came out to a cousin when I was 12. A year later, I came out to my biological mother. She opened her Bible to 1 Corinthians: 13 and recited to me: “Love is kind. Love is patient.” Despite this warm, supportive reaction, I left my mother’s room feeling worse. At that time the most comfortable thing to do was to come out a lesbian. What I really wanted to tell her is that I was a boy. As a teenager returning from school in Lesotho, I saw an article in one of the national papers naming teenagers expelled from high school on suspicion of being gay. In my fury and naivety I wrote to the newspaper decrying the act. When it was published my Ugandan schoolmates shunned me, but that act sparked the activist in me. Years later I joined Freedom & Roam, a lesbian association, and then Spectrum Initiatives, a gay association. In 2004, I formed Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) as an umbrella organisation for these outfits that create advocacy, amplify disenfranchised voices and work to break stigma against AIDS. It was through working in the NGO world that I learnt of the term `transgender’. `Tomboy’ and `shemale’ had been popular labels at the time but they didn’t feel right. Understanding the proper word for what I was and the possibilities of gender reassignment surgery helped me regain my confidence.
In 2015 I began the process and currently I’m on bi-monthly testosterone injections. It was important that I transition in Uganda. I wanted people to see me, to see the changes happening day-by-day, month-tomonth. I was transitioning with my country, with my society. This served to create a sense of safety for me and allowed young LGBTI people to come out and contact SMUG. My mother believes my political activism work is my calling. Before I kicked it off in 2014, I decided to warn my family. I recall an uncle asking me why I wanted to do it while I was already widely accepted. For me it was because I am not the only one. My greatest goal is not fostering tolerance, which gives space for scapegoating and opting out, but acceptance. People say that being gay is a Western thing and yet we have evidence to the contrary. I would love to see Africa take its own roots and embrace its diversity.