Cham­pi­oning change

In a coun­try renowned for its anti-gay laws, Ugan­dan trans­man Pepe Ju­lian Onziema makes his own tran­si­tion a form of ac­tivism

The Africa Report - - ART & LIFE - In­ter­view by Wan­jeri Gakuru

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.

not alone

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.

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