To celebrate the 2016 Transgender Day of Remembrance, we share what was our lead story for the second edition of Bombastic Magazine. The piece shared by the courageous and beautiful Cleo Kambugu, explores her journey of discovery and transition.
Every life matters and Cleo, by standing against the odds continues to use her story to encourage and inspire many transpersons across the globe. We remember those who have lost their lives to violence, transphobia and hate. May you rest in power and may stories such as this, continue to give strength to all gender and sexual minorities that face discrimination daily.
As told by Cleo
When I was approached by the Bombastic magazine team to be the main feature of this year’s edition, I was flabbergasted and torn to pieces about what I would have to say to the readers or where I would get the time to write. You see, I haven’t written in a long time, and that can leave anyone pretty rusty. And for me, writing is not something that I can will at my pleasure, it comes to me and the words come crushing onto the page like a wave. That’s why I have been procrastinating about doing my autobiography for the longest time; the time and the determination to see it through have just never come.
I have been scratching my head, trying to look for the words-so that they can come out right, so that my message could have impact. When someone puts me on a pedestal then all of a sudden I fall into this perfectionist mode where nothing I want to say seems right or good enough. But I will tell the story of my life … my life!
I was born in a small Kampala suburb called Bakuli, in a polygamous family of twelve children. Though my father had sired children from different women, it was his wish that all his children grew up together in one home, and knew each other. Now that I have grown up and heard about other people’s experiences, I respect him for his decision, and for leaving up to his responsibilities.
We did not have much growing up; my father who had had a very successful run as a boxing promoter and had travelled widely had hit a snug. But he still provided the best he could. We did not lack but learnt from an early age to appreciate the fact that money was a visitor and ought to be respected when he came by. We were constantly reminded that the world owed us nothing and that anything good that would come out of our lives would be out of hard work not because we were born with a silver spoon in our mouths. We were taught that life would be full of many ups and down, and the test of our maturity and resilience would be how we dealt with the deserts because they would come in legion.
We were taught to value and respect the people we met on our way up because we would meet them on our way down. But most of all, our father valued and he gave us an education. We did not go to the best of schools, and were not able to afford all the niceties that some kids could but we were able to go to school.
It was not an option, whether you wanted to go to school or not. At the end of every school term, we would queue up to give him our reports. It was a ceremony marked with tears and laughter depending of course on what your report card had. My father was not a violent man so he never whipped or spanked us at school or at home. He however made you appreciate and ponder hard about your performance. He was good with his word; they caressed as gently as a lover when he was pleased, and hit as painful as a leather whip when he wasn’t. I guess it is from him, genetically or out of nurture that I learnt to wield the power of the tongue. We are both painfully frank people, cut out of the same cloth. I guess the apple did not fall far away from the tree when it came to me.
However my mother made sure to clearly translate my father’s sentiments into physical terms. She was a woman of the whip. She did not speak much because words served no purpose. Her sentiments could only be transcribed into painful lashes. She did not have a designated area to apply her strokes; it was all over the body. Keeping quiet as she administered her medicine meant defiance and stubbornness, the more you turned the more she whipped, so you had to scream, yell, and beg for forgiveness. It was only then that she would understand that you felt remorseful and understood your fault. It was the only way for her to understand that you felt the pain you caused her.
I was a hard headed kid growing up; they used to call me Dennis the menace. I would often find myself in some sort of mischief, and she made sure to remind me of my flaws. But she was a loving mother, and I have come to appreciate her even the more as an adult. I now know that her canes were not because she hated us. My mother had three kids- me being the middle born, my older sister and younger brother. Though we weren’t many, I guess it was the vagaries of a polygamous marriage, and the lack that turned her into a bitter woman. Being married now, I cannot even fathom how she was even able to go through her youth sharing her husband and home with another woman. But this other woman, my step mother loved us and steps or not, our family had a bond like no other. I personally think that it is after growing up that we all realized the oddity of our family. But it was my family. It was the family that accepted my own oddity.
I was a very girly kid growing up I remember my mother being called to my kindergarten because I refused to play with toy cars like other boys and was scrambling for dolls. That evening she bought me a Barbie doll golden long hair and pink dresses. Very soon I would start to emulate my choice of clothes with my dolls’ clothes. Oddly enough, I do not remember any one questioning my choice of clothes, and my very feminine demeanor. Every so often, I was complemented about my legs and beauty and compared with my sister. I also remember that they used to call me girl’s name. It wasn’t out of ridicule; they really likened me to a girl.
In Primary school, I was called a boy girl and had the weirdest of relationships with my friends who were boys. They were not sexual but they were always oddly protective of me, and I loved it. I did not have so many friends who were boys though. I relished in the company of girls, I found them easier to relate or talk to. Football was not my greatest forte, in fact none of the traditionally boyish hobbies really were. I loved playing hide and seek, salamia, round game, seven stones among other girly games. We never had a lot of digital TV growing up so we had a myriad of games to play to occupy our selves, not like today’s kids who are glued to the silver screen. But the games we played were played by both boys and girls alike.
There was no wrong in a boy playing salamia or skipping the rope. When we played mommy and daddy I was always mommy, and looking back I do not remember it coming up even once or even being questioned about having to always take up the female role.
But then we grew up and it became distinct what roles and games girls and boys were supposed to play, things became sexual and tense, and our worlds were divided. I guess it is at this moment that I remember my world crushing and I felt lost. The world asked me to choose. It wasn’t much of an option really, as it asked me to conform more to boyhood, a gender I didn’t really relate with. Though I still wanted to play my salamia and round games, all of a sudden I was considered weird and quaky whenever did.
But I was a defiant kid; not defiant for defiance’s sake, but because I knew I wasn’t what the world was telling me to conform to- I could not really put a finger to it, but I knew I was different. At the age of 12 while my brothers asked and scattered for separate male lodging, I refused to move and remained in the girls’ lodging and it was not contested. I now wonder if it was because my parents thought that there was less harm that would come to me, if I stayed in the girl’s lodging, or if they merely struggled with raising a queer kid whose queerness they understood, and had to constantly be reminded of- you know, that it was wrong, and that the world would be hard for me because of that.
In high school, I still kept female friends for company;, it was hard to go to the loos as the boys would either not let me in or struggle to undress me to check if I was male or female. I opted to only ease myself when I went back home in the evening or between lessons. High school was hard, the boys were mean but it was only verbal. I was thankfully hard headed and still stuck to my guns. I was also a class prefect and would always be required to take books to the teachers’ staff room for marking; there, I can never forget the look on teachers’ faces whenever I walked in. I was an androgynous kid tending to the girly side and teachers would always make comments, some in awe, some in amazements and others just questioning and not understanding.
I vividly remember this one time when I went to the staff room in my sportswear, and after handing the math teacher the books, God rest her soul, I was literally asked to stand in the middle of the room and slowly turn around for them to look at me and try to figure out if I was male or female. They all concluded that I was female, apart from my math teacher who tried to convince them that I was male because she had my student registration details. However, all her convincing fell on dumb ears and it did not help that I had the softest voice ever, and when other boys’ voices’ broke, mine just refused. It did not help matters that I had the most feminine curves and that for me puberty for some reason, unlike other boys, meant a huger butt and budding boobs.
I was a late bloomer and would not develop facial hair until my second year in university. Nevertheless it was not harmful- this scrutiny and I was used to it, I was always the object of amazement, the whole school, teachers and students alike knew about the girl boy who was I. But I had good grades, was never evolved in any mischief, and was an exemplary student, save for my flaw- my mismatched gender.
My father had a hostel, and earlier while all my brothers had moved into the male lodging I had stayed in the girl’s. But it was not until form 3, that I was actually asked to move to the boy’s lodging. I guess for me that is when my problems started and I guess they thought it would harden me into manhood; that I would learn more about boy hood if they weaned me off the company of girls, and moved me to the boys’ lodging. Since my girly phase did not seem to be lifting, they thought that it would help if they weaned me off the hard way.
What they did not know, is the abuse I suffered while in that boys’ lodging-those were four painful years. It was hard enough that I had to endure homophobic verbal abuse at school but at least I could go home to my sweet haven, but now I had to live with them. We were incompatible- boys, and I; they had no notion of hygiene and organisation, and the whole hostel, reeked of a mélange of putrid, pungent horrifying smells-you would have thought something had died in there. But that was to be the least of my worries. There were three types of boys that abused me. There was the type that was completely repulsed by my sight, and always asked my girl friends why they hung out with me and scolded them for spoiling me. There were the passive aggressive ones, who wouldn’t say anything but would make sure not to talk or sit or touch what I touched; to them I was a very odd thing and they did not know how to relate with me. But those two types I could stand up to. It was the third kind I cringed from. The third kind that ridiculed me in public and made comments, yet they would come into my bed at night and sexually abuse me. This kind knew no one would believe if I told anyone, because they always uttered the most offensive homophobic slurs at and they were also sought after by a legion of girls, some my girl friends.
They knew I would not tell, because if I did, I would be blamed for bringing harm to myself because of my girliness, and I would instead be blamed for luring. So I endured the pain and did not tell a soul. My naivety was stripped from me at such a tender age and it was not by a lover, but through abuse- abuse that went on and on and on without ceasing. In a very pathological way, I always talk about how this abuse was the only intimacy I knew and came to live with. In the oddest of ways, it affirmed my femininity and my allure to the male kind. But like I always say it was not gay men from the west who made me queer, or defiled me into gayness. It was straight boys, sons of the land. Boys who have grown into married men with wives and kids and have since risen to high respectable echelons in society. These men would never lay a finger on me now because they know I know.
I guess to them, I was a piece of their sexual adventure; an exploration of their sexuality and perhaps an opportunity of a release and test drive, but for me it was abuse. Abuse I for a long time could not talk about. It was not that their defilement made me start liking men, no. I loved men, I was attracted to men, I just did not act on it, and in my fantasy world I dreamt of a time when someone would love me and propose to me openly and not keep me as a terrible secret between the sheets in a dark empty frigid room in the wee hours of the night.
But what I appreciate about my painful youth was that it helped me grow. I always say I was forged in fire and blood. Through all my experiences, I grew layer upon layer like an onion of resilience, confidence and self esteem. And when I finally put my foot down to the world, and said it was over, it really was. I was not to allow any more abuse from any one, I would not expect any less or any more respect than the next person, you did not have to understand me to treat me nicely, and I was not to shrink to make other people feel good about themselves. The same privilege life accorded other people, I demanded for myself. I went to Makerere University and stayed in the most patriarchal of male halls - Livingstone Hall. It had an age old patriarchal male legacy about it, but the four years I was a resident there I asserted my full queerness unapologetically with reckless abandon.
But it flawed me, my upbringing I mean, I struggled to just exist, happiness eluded me, and I did not really know who I was and where I fitted in. In all this I asserted myself. Unlike most cis gendered or transgender persons, our troubles start from not having a language to define one’s self to disprove the abuse and questions we face both from within and from without. While most people deal with identity crises, it is usually about as trivial as a choice of career, or what to wear. But for us, it is from who you are from within and how that is incongruent with what society tells you to be or what your pubertal body is sprouting into. Without a blue print to refer to, to define one’s self and with no support system to lean on, or to love and support you unconditionally, several often lose confidence and self esteem and recede into a painful lonely solitude. As a teenager, though I exuded a pseudo confidence for protection, I suffered with identity crisis and self esteem, I did not know who I was and did not like what the whole world was struggling to tell me I was or should be because I knew I was neither. But I did not have the language or knowledge to know where to put the mark.
As infants, we were free to unapologetically express ourselves the way we wanted. The lines between the genders was blurred, I can’t tell if it is because kids are not sexualized or because kids’ minds at that age were not yet corrupted by a system that over emphasizes and moralizes labels. But as we grow, we are in constant conversation with society, it telling us how we should or should not eat, talk, behave, what jobs we should choose, what religions we should opt for, and what we should not. I guess for me it is at that point that I
realized that the labels that defined me were wrong, and immoral, alien and aberrant. It is I guess at that point that I receded into my shell and knew that who I was would put me in harm’s way. Whenever that conversation came up, I tried my level best to shield myself from it, because neither had the language nor the confidence to come out and say that this is who I was- for even the labels that I thought I was that were wrong to society.
You’re never given a template, as a trans person, that explains how to define yourself, what your gender is or what a relationship and sex might look like. It wasn’t until I was 23 and stumbled into a queer bar in Kampala that I began to find a community of people who were like me- it was so liberating.
People ask me about when I found out I was transgender. I know that they are trying to be respectful and that they are ignorant, but I find it a very ridiculous question. But I entertain their ridiculousness, by asking them when they realized they were boys. One does not choose to be trans, it is not a life choice. There is no moment that one can tick and say this is when I realized I am a boy. I guess the realization is that you are not what everyone expects you to be and for me that was my puberty.
But my identity growing up and to this day was not and is not delimited to a box I can tick to validate and assert my position in the diversity of humanity. Am just me, a complexity of the many different ingredients that define me, none more important than the other and if ever I choose to elevate any over the other it is for completely political reason to educate people that nature is not as simplistic as they put it, and cannot be reduced to over simplified superficial identifiers. I also tell people that labels do not define my fate; my fate lies in my palms. I am not any less labeled than the next cisgender person and loathe being treated as a crippled charity case. Victimhood is not a color that goes well with my skin. I learnt this from a tender age. I grew up in a family of 15 and suffered a lot of abuse and struggle for me to know that I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth and the world owes me nothing, and that the world detests and tramples on weakness. I do acknowledge that my ‘transness’ and blackness make me less privileged than the next cisgender person, but to reduce myself to mediocrity because of that, I guess for me that would be where I draw the line.
What I learnt from my life experiences is that we let people discriminate and think less of us when we choose to think less of our selves. We give their defamatory statements the power to break us down, when we choose to not deserve to be a part of the fold. The question we should always strive to ask ourselves is do they deserve you?
Though I knew I was not gay, I also knew I was not your ordinary girl loving cis gender male boy. I knew I was not comfortable in my bones and mahood or what society suggested I ought to do or not to do as an African male. Growing up, my peculiar gender expression was mostly comicised, I was often referred to as boy girl, nyabo and other several female titles.
But these were only stale jokes used by friends, family, and bullies alike. The pressure only became more real as I approached my puberty and was expected to subscribe to gender and its roles that were distinct to masculinity, and that also meant separate lodging, dressing, game and sport. It even became more real when I was confronted by family to clarify my sexuality, and I guess it was then that I felt the pressure to choose my identity, and be more clear about what that was.
At some point, I thought mine were sexuality issues, and so thought I was gay. But later on when I was able to interact with the gay community in Uganda I felt that, that label did not feel right and there on started my journey to self realisation and determination, from developing the urgency and confidence to define myself.
In Uganda, there is a lose dichotomy between sexual orientation and gender identity. Most trans people in my country are pre op, and hence are just seen as very fabulous, unapologetic daring effeminate gay men or butch lesbian and are not tolerated and targeted for abuse. It is only now that our some of law makers, I guess as a result of the long AHA battle that did not go well, came to the understanding of the difference between sexual minorities and trans people. There is now a law that criminalises trans people who seek medical surgery whenever they seek their citizenship to be recognised for example when trying to get travel documents or just identity documents.
I understand that while some people ask me questions to ridicule and offend me, my confidence in standing up on my feet and answering them will shake them up into realizing that there is no wrong in being me that I should feel any less and at least they leave with a morsel of knowledge about trans people and would never ridicule another trans person. So I speak, I talk and I question myself, to help people unlearn, learn and relearn what was socialised in them by default.
I enlighten them, for me it is that so many things are not discussed in my continent and are relegated to the realm of controversy as an excuse and justification for them not being discussed while many people continue to suffer and die in silence scared to talk about them. For me it is that so many technocrats, politician’s people we trust without countries are scared to ask some questions because they will be judged and called perverts and incompetent. A lot of information is relegated into common sense when it actually isn’t, and what that means is that people who do not have the information will not ask for it for fear of being called incompetent or ignorant or perverts for asking such simple things.
As such our country, or system is managed by ignorant people who are too scared to ask they would rather legislate based on ignorance rather than ask for fear of being ridiculed themselves.