Season 4: Episode 5
Human rights activist Cleapatra Kambugu talks about giving voice to the minoritized, staying resilient, and planting seeds of change.
This season I’m talking about how empathy and storytelling can help bridge divides.
Today I am in conversation with Cleopatra Kambugu, a biologist, activist and transgender film personality. Cleopatra’s wish to better understand her gender expression led her to study genetics and molecular biology in university and later undergo surgery to help others decode what she already was. As she says, “This is what I am, do you read me?”
We talk about the importance of creating spaces for marginalized people’s voices to be heard, the vision of making social identifiers that are helpful rather than limiting, and the risk of AI learning our current biases.
When Cleopatra participated in the award-winning documentary, The Pearl of Africa, Uganda was in the middle of passing the anti-homosexual Act of 2013 which originally sentences those breaking the law to death. Presently Cleopatra lives in Uganda and works for an NGO fighting for the rights of people to choose who they love.
I was curious how Cleopatra became so resilient. Her life philosophy will uplift and inspire changemakers. She reminds us that change is a marathon and not a sprint. We are planting seeds and we forget that seeds take time. It is important to enjoy life, to cut unnecessary chains, be in touch with our roots and avoid seeking validation from external sources.
Are we honestly caring for each other when we speak about humanity? Do we honestly care for each other as a species or not? And I think it’s that it’s a project of honesty. And whether we are ready to steward this resource be it the climate justice conversation, or be it the conversation of being able to accommodate and appreciate every human. And for us, I think on that continent, is to just go back and say, where did we lose it and we have a term for that. In West Africa, it’s called Sankofa, which means “going to get what we lost.”
Cleopatra Kambugu is a Ugandan transgender woman and human rights activist, advocating for equality and social justice with a particular focus on sex workers and gender non-conforming communities. She is recognized for her advocacy and being featured in the 2016 award-winning Netflix feature-length documentary The Pearl of Africa and most recently became the first Transgender Ugandan to be recognized by her country.
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TBS S4E5 Cleopatra Kambugu
Thank you so much for joining me today, Cleopatra. I just want to start out by mentioning that I saw you at Lisa Russell’s Arts and SG s festival and you were kind enough to share the documentary that you participated in called the Pearl of Africa, which is out on Netflix.
And I was so moved by your story. So I reached out to you, and I really appreciate you coming and talking with us today for anybody who hasn’t seen the film yet. Before we talk about some of the issues around gender and gender fluidity, I wanted to ask if you could summarize the documentary and tell us where you are.
Thank you so much, Laura. I’m in Kampala right now, Kampala, Uganda, and that’s a very huge thing for me to say right now because this is a place I couldn’t stay in a couple of years ago because of a law that we had, crazy law. That meant that people like me were illegal, still are but worse at that time then. So where do I start? I think it’s a very long story, The Pearl of Africa, the story of someone trying to be heard in our world that selectively hears some people and not other people.
We listen to rebut. And that really has been the story of being trans, and my story. That when I was growing up, I was born in 86, I didn’t have a narrative of what it means to be trans, what dating looked like, how to use the restroom.
Don’t know about you, but it’s tough being born in a world where going to a bathroom is something that’s in a piece of law. Something that basic like being able to ease yourself. And I discovered as I grew up and I went to school and university and started traveling, that trans people just didn’t have the same level of access as everyone else. And I didn’t have information to date, or that spoke about me, I wasn’t represented because the world I existed in completely nullified my existence. I didn’t exist. But here I was. And so I thought to do a story that spoke of my experiences as a trans person. At that I was in university and I was studying genetics, trying to understand that if no one will explain who I am, could science explain who I am at the level of DNA. That’s really why I did a degree in Molecular biology and genetics, because I’m not a scientist right now, I don’t practice, but I did that for a lot of years because I didn’t have any information elsewhere. And The Pearl of Africa followed me trying to figure out how to access health care in a country that when you feel a form it says male and female, it doesn’t say trans. If I needed a pap smear, I would have to go to our section that required me to present an I.D. that read male and at that point where I presented that I wouldn’t access a pap smear or any breast health services because my ID read male. And I became baffled because why, don’t you see what my body looks like, don’t you see that I need these? What logic beyond ‘that someone needs something, then provide that health service’ do you need?
And I think why I approached my Transgender and health this way is that I was raised in a family of twelve children. We have 14 siblings right now and five mothers, and I our parents never taught us how to second guess why we need something. So every time I didn’t have something, I asked, why aren’t I given this? Like I was literally an Oliver Twist, give me some more, why aren’t you giving me some more food, I need it. I need nourishment. And every time I didn’t give it, I was surprised, and I thought to document this story through The Pearl of Africa, my journey through love because I’m like, Why shouldn’t I be loved like everyone else? What’s wrong with that?
And then my journey to find, I would say what the language that’s used to transitioning. But I think my medical transitioning and my transitioning was an, an exposing of what already was. Like I tell people, I didn’t become trans by having surgery, or by saying I was I was trans. I was born trans and as I was just trying to exist in a way that you could understand my expression because the world, I wasn’t born in a world that could decode my expression and in a world that could understand it. in the standard. Basically, my transitioning was un-obscuring what already was. It was decoding to the world. “This is what I am, do you read me? Do you read me now?“
I don’t know if the world does now, but it’s the continued work of trans people, decoding to the world, “We exist, we are here. Can you read us?” Can we reframe gender? And that’s really about normalizing transness.
So beautifully said. It’s so interesting to hear the backstory to your life because the documentary itself was filmed in verité style, so we saw what you were doing, but we really didn’t have like interview material talking about your life. And what I saw in the documentary is just a lot of joy and a lot of love and a lot of just, you know, a human being, just all of a sudden confronted with this threat and having to leave the country and then embracing the transition at the end that you mentioned. But like your time that you were filmed in Uganda on the hillside, taking walks, it was really fun. Like, you have a good sense of humor. And it’s interesting to me that the level of acceptance, self-acceptance that you portrayed in the film and that I get a sense of from you, do you think that’s partly because there were twelve children and there was just chaos and everybody was accepted in your family? Or I’m curious about that if you ever even wondered about that?
I don’t know, I guess growing up in such a huge family taught me about the value of individuality and the value of introspecting to find out who you are. And that for me is very important in the world where we usually look out to define who we are. We seek for validation from without, from a world that hasn’t lived with us long enough to know us and make deductions about who we are. Which is a sad reality. But such is life.
But I think growing up in a household of twelve children, what you call chaos was for me, I think for me was finding, it defined for me what life is–that human beings are not homogenous. Even as women we are not the same. And at, we, growing up, defining myself as a woman, as my dad’s child, it wasn’t something that was prescribed, rather than something that you decided. We picked at culture and said this pattern of culture subscribes to me, applies to me so I’ll subscribe to it. And there was that freedom to self-select. Now this is so different from how the world looked like. Because the world determines which restrooms you go to, which are for boys, which are for girls. We don’t have, We didn’t have any of this. In chaos was freedom, you know.
I guess in how we’ve over structured the world and tried to define people based on identities, it hasn’t worked because people, people cannot just be defined by one facet. And as a feminist, I know that to be true because feminists, feminism is based on intersectionality that my lived experience of who I am as Cleopatra will be the function of everything I am, not just my trans. I’m a black trans woman who is thirty-five years old, who is going through a middle age experience, also working in a nonprofit sector that… But a black person in an INGO (international non-governmental organization) sector.
You know that the politics of migration apply to me already ,or the politics of working in that sector that’s usually for a different kind of melanin face that has less melanin. Because usually that development sector in this continent wear’s a face of less melanin and is usually not based in this country. So it’s already weird that Africans are leading their own development right now, but that’s a thing. And how can we shift that? So yeah.
It’s, take life as it is. But what is authenticity? Who are you in a world that’s telling you all of these things? And yeah. For me, it was that. And I found more satisfaction, when you speak about purpose and happiness, I found more completeness in living my truth and being accountable to my, to my, I don’t say choices, but being accountable to my authenticity, to who I am, not some other person’s fashion of me.
I could have chosen to leave my parents fashion of me, my dad fashion over me, but I chose to live my fashion of me. I feel then accountable, what you call, “You’re happy in your, what should be sadness” because at the time in this fashion, could be the fashion I’m living in this life. And I have allowed myself to be accountable and responsible for any wrong or bad mistake I make, or what outcome comes out of that. So, one of the things, my outward expression in 2013 mean that I had to leave the country, you know, as an exiled. But I took that and say, Well, if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And I joined a foundation that end up breaking down the law that led me to be exiled.
But I stayed away long enough until I’ve been able to go through my surgery to come back and say, we need to change our system. And for me, that thing is just being comfortable in the now, because if you’re changing things that are deeply embedded into who we are like gender, like socialization, you need to know that it will take, it will be a marathon not a sprint and some things will take some time. And that, for me has given me wellness and comfort to know that, well, wherever I am right now is where I need to be. I might not be where I need to be, there are so many things about transness I don’t like, but we will get that and I’ll contribute what I can and other people will contribute more. And that helps me sleep at night because I’m not happy about how things are right now but we’ve also made amazing strides because of appreciating that small strides that we’ve made.
So inspiring. I want to ask you. Go into a little bit of the politics and ask you what what happened for the people that don’t know what happened in 2013 in Uganda? Yeah, why don’t we start with that?
Well, Uganda already has a penal code that penalizes how you have sex and it penalizes any sex that’s outside heterosexual sex and and by heterosexual sex, I mean, penile vagina penetration like anything that goes out of heterosexual sex, like any other orifice is, penalized. And I’m sorry to be so visual but that’s what it is. It is sad that we have laws that determine how you have sex and which organs come together, which organs are compatible, which ones aren’t. That level of policing in a world that’s dealing with issues like feminism and climate change and investment of resources is completely unnecessary. But that’s where we are and from that place we’ve never been before as suspicious. You know we were there when we policed during the Nazi era, people of different races and of different sexualities.
I feel like we keep on trying as a species to challenge nature, to say, let’s, let’s push the weak ones away. Let’s determine natural selection. Let’s do some artificial selection. And this is why, this is what this is. And so 2013 was the anti-homosexuality act, there that says if someone is gay or perceived to be gay or thought to be gay, or if you have sex with someone whom you know to be gay, or if you know of a couple that was gay and never say, and didn’t report them, you all are equally accomplices to a crime of allowing these two people to have sex. How is this not akin to racism? And saying to people of different amounts of melanin should not fuse? What is the biological basis of this? As a biologist I know that it doesn’t matter. Pleasure is pleasure. Humans meet for different reasons besides procreation, and that’s a whole other conversation around liberating sexual rights. But yes, that was the conversation back then that some people who are or thought to be gay should not have sex and they should be jailed for this.
Why? We fail to see that do this to us as a country besides proving something to, we won’t bow down to neo colonialism, and it truly felt like a detour, like a politicization of something to divert us from the issues that our country was dealing with, maternal health. Access to basic resources that our government had then decided to restrict from them based on the reason that, we don’t like how those people are. We don’t like how they sleep with each other that way. Doesn’t that disgust you? You know. Why? Why do that? Instead of providing services to all Ugandans? That’s what, that’s what our government is supposed to do. Not to justify why some services shouldn’t be provided to some community, you know, something like this.
But that’s 2013. And, it was horrible. It reminded me what can happen when people are swept into anger and propaganda. We had vigilante houses set set up to cleanse the country of immorality. We had gay people blamed for anything from feminism to disease to anything like we were an easy target. And I think what we learned from that era that we are learning again from Tanzania is, like swinging the moralist cane, just, it’s just a slippery slope around a very wrong area. We can’t start to determine what’s moral and what isn’t without using subjective things that don’t apply to everyone. And this is a pertinent conversation, you know. It’s not about homosexuality, it’s that how can individuality exist in a world that is also thinking about things communally and in that way, erasing individuality? How do we co-exist as a species with our differences? So it’s not a trans issue, an LGTQ issue is not only happening in Uganda, it’s everywhere. It’s Islamophobia, it’s xenophobia in Europe. It’s how do we coexist? And I think again borrowing that feminist lens until we appreciate that all oppression is interconnected, you know, and we deal with these as cross movement, you know?
So it doesn’t make sense to me why the women’s rights movement feels like trans people encroach on women’s rights. I don’t get that. I do get where they’re coming from. I do also know that we would cover more ground if we just came together as a movement that appreciate that women are diverse. And one of the things that have restricted women access is saying, how can you be a proper woman, you know.
And so when we have that women’s rights movement saying that, what is proper for women, we enter another ground of again women policing women like, OK, should, should we say, are we pro-abortion as women or not? Are we pro different sexualities or not? Are we pro different races or not? Are you pro Jewish people or not? Are you pro Muslim people or not?
I think, it’s, are we pro womanhood in all its diversity? And I think it’s yes. And that’s what feminism stands for–diversity.
Yeah. Thank you for taking us back to there, because this season I’m talking about empathy, and I think that part of that is coming to this place where we empathize and humans and all of their differences, at least by the way that I, I define empathy, which is being able to see the human humanity in other people and not only the humanity, but the value. So even a value in an animal or a value in a hill that’s certain extractive is companies want to destroy. Right? I wanted to ask you, you mentioned feminism, but during the arts festival, you also mentioned you’re interested in talking about gender and gender fluidity. I’m wondering what that is to you. How do you define that and how do you want to share that message?
I don’t think gender wasn’t meant was made for us. And when I say as I don’t mean trans people, I mean any gender that feels like it’s excluded in gender or that by ascribing to that gender, they feel like they have less access to some things. I called to ask panelists beliefless are more policed. There is a level of discrimination, and I believe that to be true also for cis women, so to sat that, and to be true for intersex people.
And if we start from this point, then to say, OK, gender might not have been made for us, but how do we reframe it to become for us? Because at that time gender was coined and socialization, the women’s rights movement that are fighting for this things, were not in that room to claim these things. And I don’t, the rooms did not look as diverse as they do now. So even as we speak gender at a time that’s supposed to speak about something that defines us in our difference that also speaks socialization.
How are we able to universally define gender holistically? Yet we are socialized differently? Because as a geneticist, I know that being a social construct is a function of your genetics, your biology and the society you’re born in and how it allows you or doesn’t allow you to express yourself freely or not. And so then it becomes a conversation of whatever your gender identity might be, how free are you to express this? And I don’t think that we are, we are, particularly as really, everyone, even when it comes to cis gendered women, if there is such a broad term to define women who have this same gender as what was inscribed on there birth certificates. They are not the same. They don’t have that same expression as women. But even the erroneous saying, OK, these are cis women, and not doing the work of saying, what are women and their difference? I know even in that these women movement there is conversation around where some cis women feel left out of the conversation because of their religion, creed, choice of labor and their values. And so this applies to sex workers, for example, women who are pro-abortionists.
So that again boils down to that, that gender might not have been mean for us, but how can we make it for us? And I know that this is a language that is mostly in that trans movement, but I think it’s language that’s for everyone. That how can we make these social identifiers to be helpful rather than limiting in our expression of life?
So being a woman shouldn’t limit how successful you are in choosing different employment options. If it does, why do we have it? That’s my question. If we have been struggling with this thing that makes it difficult, why do we have it? Or alternatively, how do we reframe it to make it more inclusive? On the other hand, we’ve seen that rise of the anti-gender movement that’s moralizing gender as a construct and its existence.
So there is that. There is both sides. We need to define gender because it’s just one of the most outdated things. We can call it fluid. We can call it whatever. Unless we sit together and say, let’s define this thing that literally affects which school you’re able to access, you know, for people that have single gender schools. Or which health is able to get. Like women and men have different access to retirement opportunities. If we’re defining the world as women and men, is this really women and men, and how is this helpful or not? Can you do the further work, the more laborious work and the less lazy work for of not saying women and men. Including
including in filling in a form of a medical, when you’re getting medical services or defining which health systems for where.
Do some things have to have gender as a something that you have to fill in and say what’s your gender. I say this as applies to things like the health sector. I believe the application of gender in the health systems has only served to make it difficult for some, for some unrecognized genders to access health, because when health care is framed on a binary system it assumes that women have breasts and a vagina. And so that’s a department called that OBGYN. And but that’s on how trans bodies look, and neither is that how intersex bodies look like. So to start with, that’s an erroneous way of looking at how health systems can be organized.
Why don’t we look at it like systems? We have a circulatory system or the GIT or the neuro, neuro system, things that everyone has and we don’t have to say, OK, women have maybe different brain so let’s have women’s issues in this section. And the reason for this is because when things are separated for some genders, it has implications on how much budget is thrown at it. It usually the last thought about things, they are pushed to that peripheral. So I do feel like, what do I feel about gender? Gender was not made for us. Never was. Even as we speak about gender mainstreaming. Because if a woman became president, becomes a woman president, but if it’s a man he’s a president. Why that classification, as if to say that a woman is less as a president. Like what’s the importance of gender and how can we reframe it to be helpful? And any place where gender has been weaponized and used to prevent access, can you call that those places out and deal with that?
Now are we able to have that honest conversation, I don’t think so because that means accepting to relinquish power. And I don’t think the world is ready to relinquish power because gender is about power and it’s the hugest thing that has determined who has more power over others. Look at how… But how also about look at how the political representation of this world, where those leadership sit and who owns the world economy? But who contributes the most of the world economy? And why are things, why are the biggest producers having less power over making decisions? And why have we called communities minorities and not call them minoritized communities? And what I mean by that is that we have decided to create an artificial minoritization of some communities, even when they exist. And this is not new. We saw this happening with the Indigenous people during pre-colonialized, and it’s happening again. Same system. More diplomatic. Yeah, gender.
Yeah, I like to call this new economy like the neocolonial economy, they say neo liberal, but it’s neo colonial.
I know. Yeah, yeah.
For people who might have. I mean, I’m interested in how we bridge divides and there’s like a lot of reasons these devices are going to be difficult to be bridged because of the power structure. But if you’re looking at like an individual interaction, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to bridge divides on a one on one basis. And how have you found your being and interacting in the world as you are as somebody who is authentic and accepted yourself? And I think in that itself, it brings a lot of joy and people feel that right. Have you seen people’s barriers break down? Have you seen that be successful with just your interaction or some of the stories that you tell? Or maybe through the documentary, I’m, I’m curious about hope in the area of bridging divides.
Yeah, well, that’s why I do film, because film allows people to be seen, it allows for personal experience, and it’s true the Pearl of Africa was a personal experience. In the beginning it was, the script was written as an activist script. And when we sat down we were like, no, we want this to be as human as possible. It will be uncomfortable. It will be personal. So some scenes was shot when I was getting out of the surgery room or going into surgery. But I needed people to see that no one chooses this pain. I, why? When people say being trans is a choice, no, you don’t choose to go through this pain. And even after all that pain, we still have to beg for access.
So yes, I think, I think, well, as a basic COVID taught us anything, I think it taught us that you can’t exist alone in purpose and we need to know the person beside ourself. It just taught us to appreciate that we are not self-sufficient and we can be broken. And because of that we can’t exist alone and it helped people to see each other beyond a superficialness, beyond our faces. And because of that, we were able to go beyond, whether it’s color or race or whether it’s trans or who do you sleep with? And I see that happening more.
And what then that means for me is that we need to have more content that is more representative of people and of this conversation, because social norms work and shifting social norms, like you say, which is speaking work, about what you interact with, what content you’re going to interact with. And for me, this is important because we’re living with AI and digitization. And really COVID was a digital project of existence. And corporate digital firms determine what we got to see. And most of this was mainstream content that was cis. heterosexual and certain things and certain things were demonized more than others.
And for me then starting the conversation of if we are going to extend both played into the physical world and the other world, how are we going to move there with the same biases that we have here? And how are we learning empathy, like you said? Are there going to be human rights sensitive platforms, if you speak on the metaverse?
Will it have gender? Are we going to move with the things that have been difficult in this platform and rebuilding them there? And to which extent will AI learn our biases and amplify them? Because that I’m really worried about because AI is more powerful than any of our reach. If AI learned homophobia, I think then we failed the battle of stopping homophobia. If AI learns any hatred that hatred will be amplified. And I think that worries me even more than an individual being able to express that.
But, yes, there is still that individual act of changing minds, touching hearts, because people build AI and people will build the metaverse. That we are more conscious, empathetic. We are able to see what isn’t us in another person.
“Do you see me?” I like the avatar when it says, “I see you.”
Not, “I see your face,” because she had been with him for some time, but “I see you, even as you’re wearing an alien mask.”
Do we see each other? Because if we don’t see each other, we will not see each other in building this universe that say will be amazing. And they’re already panning out not to be that amazing. If the story’s going around how we distributed vaccines to the whole world. Or the fact that we’re just getting vaccines right now, that are expired ones, that are running out of shelf [life].
Yeah, are we? Are we honestly caring for each other when we speak about humanity? Do we honestly care for each other as a species or not? And I think it’s that it’s a project of honesty. And whether we are ready to steward this resource be it the climate justice conversation, or be it the conversation of being able to accommodate and appreciate every human. And for us, I think on that continent, is to just go back and say, where did we lose it and we have a term for that. In West Africa, it’s called Sankofa, which means “going to get what we lost.”
And at term that all of Africa identifies with is a term called Ubuntu, which is humanness, humanity. I think that’s the English equivalent, but doesn’t quite capture it because it speaks to peopleness, peoplehood, people that…
People should be, in all their difference and that should never be questioned. And people are valid in spite of who they are. And on that table of different things, let people being what they are most able to bring. Like, let’s not punish fish for how to fly, and birds for how to swim. Like, that system is messed up. Let people be, and they will be able to aspire. And the term is called Ubuntu, and I feel like it’s coming back more even in our love for African music that last year, that was showing a love for Afro music, but how can we go back to get that which we lost?
That’s beautiful, and yeah, I heard this definition of Ubuntu that you stated it very well, metaphorically and in my kind of categorical way, I thought it’s naming instead of labeling, you know, labeling like, Oh, you’re a fish and you can’t, you can’t fly, you are bad. Like, that’s the label. And Ubuntu said, No, you’re doing well, you’re doing great and you’re swimming, and it’s OK that you can’t fly.
Really beautiful. I’m really confused or not confused, but also concerned a bit about this metaverse. And I wonder if it’s one of these things that there was something called, I think, Second Life that kind of boomed and then disappeared. I wonder if it’s going to be one of those things. But yeah, artificial intelligence bringing in the biases that we have now, we already are seeing that happen. So we need more programmers, more diverse sets of programmers and also maybe more
Or trans programmers.
Yeah. All sorts of. I wonder. one thing that you said, I’m not going to remember it exactly, but you mentioned more people telling their stories. And I think that also means more people feeling comfortable with themselves. And that’s like, I feel like you had a special upbringing. I think so many people grow up and they’re not as self-accepting. So like, do have I don’t know if advice is the right word, but like suggestions for people that maybe you have met also in the trans community or in any communities that you encounter where you feel like we have words of advice on how to embrace oneself and be able to then be strong enough to share their stories?
And I forget who said these two things, but it’s two things, that when you shed your chains you become free, but when you cut off your roots, you lose yourself. And that touched deep because often times in defining ourselves, we unknowingly losing ourselves. And we’re doing that because we think life will be easier, simpler, more accepting and what you realize that life is more sad. And for me life, even as a trans person, life still feels like part for me, theater, to an audience. Which is why I talked about validation being an outward looking thing rather than an inward looking thing. And I don’t know where we lost. That’s why I’m saying we need to go back and get what we lost. Why do you look outward to define yourself from someone who has just met you and say, “I hate trans people” because, or “I hate German ladies” if they met you. Or say anything about Laura, “I hate this about you.” Or “I hate your face” or I hate what. They literally just met you, and you just allow them to define your entirety.
And I think for me at that moment, I realized that, “Oh, you don’t you don’t know that much about me to ever make such a deduction” was a huge eureka moment that I feel we should all need. And so if I ever need any validation or a pep talk or to just say “you did bad, you did bad Cleo.” I look in the mirror. I’m my toughest boss, I’m my toughest critic. When I criticize myself I know I’m to criticizing myself from a place of care and love and optimism. And it’s pure and it’s honest, things we don’t find much in the world. And I find that to be a more reliable place. I mean, if you’re looking for evaluation, one other thing is a reliable place that is also building. And I find that I’m a more building place because I love myself and I want myself to succeed. And I know myself for 35 years. So when that voice speaks to me, I listen because that voice has lived with me for a lot of time and in places where even no one has been.
And so in those two words that if you’re looking for any validation, look in the mirror, and that’s where you find the most honest, true validation. And if you feel you have any chains, when you cut those chains you only become freer. But if you cut your roots and lose who you are, that’s a sad reality. It’s sad and I think there’s more humans that need to be unplugged from the Matrix and just be free to be themselves. I mean, we only have one life. Why would you live it for a person who just exists for a moment, other than yourself? You know?
I think the challenge happens when the people who are criticizing our family. But but that brings me to community, community like how did you find community in this country where people were, where these laws were coming up and there were vigilantes? Where did you find community and how do you suggest other people to find community?
I will speak spiritually and speak more pragmatically. And spiritually for me I have come to find out that I’m the energy I exude, and that the universe always provides. And I think that it’s not that the universe hasn’t already provided, it’s that sometimes we get really, really with things taking the time they need.
But if nature is anything, is things take time. When you plant a seed, you don’t sit and watch it grow. You go and do other things. And I think we are so concerned about things that aren’t working out and we’re not working on other things. If you plant a seed, you go and do other things. I’m a trans person, and that’s it. But I am in film. I’m in philanthropy. I’m a scientist. I’m a daughter. I am a partner. I’m so many things and those things give me so much joy. And I live in them and enjoy them even as I’m doing my activism now.
When we live monolithic life of modern narratives and usually focusing on things that aren’t working out, because, as Oprah says, “We are more in tune to see that things as the glass being half empty rather than half full.” And that’s a think I struggle, still I’m struggling to unlearn. I mean sometimes happiness eludes me. I’m not saying I’m in the place of perfect Zen. But yes, when I find myself in that place, I know that I give off the energy that.. I attract energy I give off. And there’s been so many times where that has been the case.
Now how I do it is, I don’t know, my life honestly seems scripted, Laura. But that’s because when you’re when… I believe in serendipity, when you need to be in that place, you’ll be there. And you will notice if you are tuned to the universe and you’ll know what to do. And my whole life has always been not about me being, I would say the word is lucky and patient. I’ve managed to be in the right place at the right time, somehow. And then being able to be positively, in a positive space to say I see this and then I’m willing to work, to make use of this.
Because you still need to get over your fear. Now, my fear doesn’t mean I don’t fear anything. It just means that I don’t let my fear make me not move, make me freeze. I don’t freeze in fear. I still move. I’m still scared, like I was scared last year and the ID happened. I was scared of what my government would do, but I was like, that’s exactly what people expect me to do to say nothing. So I’ll do what I’m not expected to do, I will put it on my Instagram. And sometimes doing what people don’t expect to do as a trans person, people interpret it as self-confidence.
Which it has built, like, “Oh, she’s confident.” And I think I am. I’m a confident person. And I’m not saying I’m hypocritically confident, but I think over time you’ll– because we learn to date ourselves, people then doubters. And so because I’ve learned to not doubt myself, I don’t know if people doubt me less, but I find it difficult to allow people to define me or to allow their doubt of me to then be something I dwell on.
And I think that the knowledge that whether you doubted me or not it wouldn’t amount to anything. It makes people feel like that doubt is futile and it never comes. I rarely receive that and when it happens I take it like, “Oh, why do you think so?”
When I was in the US I was attending a transgender conference, met a man, he saw me having a card that meant that I was in that conference. I think he profiled me to be trans. And so he said. “Oh. You’re trans, you’re from that conference, you are tranny.”
So I just stopped in the middle of that road and I shouted. “Oh, you win the prize for spot the tranny, you won the prize spot the tranny. Please claim your prize. I’m a tranny, so spotted me. What do you want to claim? Please congratulate this gentleman.”
Because, what he expected me to shrink and hide and probably wear glasses. He ran and he escaped that scene, and it ended up being a clapping session.
But most times when you do what you’re not expected to do in a situation, it attracts a different kind of energy. And for me, again, I turn to my spirituality. It’s, I’ve learned to love from loveless situations, learned patience from things that have tested my patience.
And so I would rather look at those moments at moments of learning or at a moment of, “Oh, it’s a horrible moment.” But rather, what am I learning, am I on learning emotional intelligence in that moment?
And yeah, just living positively in a world that will take its time to appreciate you and just say, OK, then what, will this ruin my day or not. And it often doesn’t, and I find myself either meeting transphobic people who would rather not express their transphobia and they end up not expressing it. So I’m not affected. Because what I don’t know doesn’t hurt me. And the rest ends up being peace.
And I don’t know if people are changing, but I think there’s a change that’s happening. I mean, film has changed. There’s more representation, we have pause. We have trans people producing their own film. We have Pearl of Africa. I think things are changing, but things could change more. But we let’s see.
Beautiful, thank you for sharing. I feel very inspired. I’m curious, is there anything else that you wanted to share with us? I feel like we could have a whole other second interview that we’re just skimming the surface. But yeah.
Also you’re very conversational, you know how to speak, but your very conversational. I love how you led me around. This has sort of like an introspection, something we need to… Like, I feel like it’s an unpaid therapy session. Because I’ve been able to be introspect and say, oh, how was I able to tackle this well, irrespective of being in Uganda, in what should have been hard? Yeah, but I thank you so much for taking time to nuance this conversation. A lot of people would have just focused on my genitals. And I like the fact that you have focused on the humanness. And I think that’s where that trans conversation should be, should be headed. And not ask questions, but to say, how, how are you able to see the world in such a different light? Because what baffles me is when it comes to transphobia, is it’s not about people’s age or race it, it just happens randomly. You just, you find a ten year old who’s just transphobic as hell.
I think if more people met you, there would be less scared, so thank you. Yeah, I really appreciated your time and I did feel like it was a therapy session for me as well. I learned a lot from what you shared and I feel very inspired. Thank you so much.