When President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, he changed the lives of all LGBTI people in Uganda, one of the most dangerous countries for gay and transgender people. For my friend Cleopatra Kambugu, February 24, 2014, was one of the worst days of her life. In the same week, Cleo found her name on the front page of The Red Pepper, a Ugandan newspaper. She lost her job and was abandoned by most of her family. But she wasn't the only one.
With homosexuality illegal in the country, everyone was forced to conform to the norm or hide from the authority and even from their family and friends. Gay and transgender people lost their jobs and were forced to live in isolation to avoid persecution or violence, to live alone away from the people they care about. The Anti-Homosexuality Act encompasses prohibitions for all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions that are not considered normal. So, while
Cleo is not gay, she is still subject to the harsh, inhuman stipulations of the law.
According to Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 2013, 96 percent of Ugandans believe homosexuality is unnatural and should be rejected. This made Uganda the third most homophobic country in the world among 99 countries polled. In a country that views gender and sexuality traditionally, growing up gay or transgender is an ordeal. As a child, Cleo never had any issue with expressing her feminine behavior to her family, but as she approached adolescence and her body started to take on more and more male characteristics. The pressure to look like and act like an African boy grew bigger by the day.
For any transgender person, being forced to act the sex you were assigned at birth is a psychological torment. For gay and trans people in countries where they are at risk of persecution and ill treatment, the problem isn't just being forced to conform to the conventions. The other problem is the rift that this social coercion puts among families and friends. While Cleo found love and support in her mother, she drew the ire and disapproval of her father, who then stopped talking to her. Her mother still worries about her safety, though. She worries about her mother, too, thinking she could be targeted by people who loathe gay or trans people.
The harsh and violent homophobia and transphobia in places like Uganda make the lives of gay and trans folks and their families difficult. Hence, many of the LGBTI people choose to live away from their loved ones to keep them safe at least. The torture this brings is enough to give the oppressed thoughts of ending their life. Despite such a difficult life, Cleo and Nelson has managed to find time for love. Nelson, her boyfriend, who she calls her husband, gave her life meaning and made her struggles somewhat lighter. She knew she could count on him, someone who wasn't ashamed to express his affection for her in a country where he, too, could face serious hostility for associating with her.
Nevertheless, the signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act changed things for Cleo drastically. Four days after the act was signed by the Ugandan President, she found herself on the cover of The Red Pepper. Realizing that the crackdown on them had begun. Fearing for their lives, they went underground.
During this time, I received a heartbreaking letter from Cleo, telling me about the harsh effect the law had on their lives. They had been forced to live behind closed doors for over a month. With Cleo's mother coming in the nights with food and supply. Cleo was trying to get out of the country to Sweden, USA or Norway. Anything would help.
But at this time, countries like Sweden, who is known for supporting LGBTI activists in Uganda. Turned their backs to the activists. Many were refused to attend international conferences because of the fear of them overstaying their visas and that they would use it as an excuse not to go back home.
For thousands of gay and trans people in Uganda, leaving the country was the only option. There had been too much oppression of LGBTI people in Uganda even before the signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. This blatant and ruthless treatment forced 15,400 Ugandans to seek asylum in 2009-2012. By 2013, 1,744 were granted asylum and fled to countries like United States, UK, Canada and Sweden. While it meant freedom from sure persecution, it also meant goodbyes to loved ones -- family and friends, whom they might no longer see or touch again. It's a hostile situation no one deserves to be in.
Cleo was forced to leave Uganda for Kenya, leaving her family and boyfriend Nelson behind. Not knowing when she'd see them again. In the critically acclaimed documentary The Pearl Of Africa, Cleopatra Kambugu describes Uganda as a beautiful place "a country blessed with diversity in ethnicity, gender, flora and fauna." "Yet in all this richness, as a people and as a nation, we still struggle to recognize and appreciate this diversity,".
The project started as a web series which not only documented Cleo's fight for love. But it also helped to raise over $14,000 to cover for her sex reassignment surgery. A giant step on the way to reach her goal of becoming the first trans person accepted for her true gender identity in Uganda. Something that would pave the way forward if it were to happen.
In May of 2015 Cleo was finally able to have her sex reassignment surgery in Thailand. A difficult surgery that had its complications. During a month I was able to follow Cleo and Nelson's journey as they went through one of the most demanding obstacles a couple can face. A recovery process that is deeply painful, where Cleo for weeks had to rely on Nelson for her basic needs as a human being.
This deep personal struggle is now being turned into a feature documentary. A project that I started working on in 2012. Traveling alone to Uganda without a crew. Living with Cleo and Nelson to capture their intimate and personal fight for love. Stretching from living a quite normal life in Uganda to being forced to leave her country, family and boyfriend behind, not knowing when they'll see each other again. Since then, the project has grown a lot, from being a one person project into engaging an online community of over 100 000 people. If you haven't yet seen the courage and determination of Cleo, watch it first hand in The Pearl Of Africa.
Today Cleo dreams of returning to Uganda, even though the law since its introduction has been denounced, the lives of LGBTI folks in Uganda remain threatened. While many activists has left Uganda, many still remain fighting for their rights. Others are planning their return.