By Elvira Cordileone
Grace and persistence under almost unendurable circumstances have earned Victor Juliet Mukasa a place at the head of this year's [Toronto] Pride parade.
Still, for someone who's been punished because of his gender identity, "a transperson," as the 33-year-old Ugandan calls himself, the prospect of serving as Pride Week's international grand marshal is scarey.
In an interview from Cape Town, where he is a researcher for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Mukasa sees irony in his situation. Although he promotes the rights of people like himself, only six years ago, he had no idea terminology existed to describe his gender identity.
Mukasa is biologically female. In Uganda, people expected him to act like one and, when he didn't (couldn't, he insists), his father and his school beat him for acting like a boy.
In a 2006 speech to the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Geneva, Mukasa lists some of the abuses transgender people face in Africa. They are:
"I became so desperate. I asked myself, `Why is this happening to me?' And I had an answer: `Because I am a lesbian and because of how I present myself,'" Mukasa says.
But he refused to bend and paid for it by becoming an outcast. His family shunned him, and today he lives in self-imposed exile.
Mukasa's activism began seven years ago when, after living in painful isolation, he met a group of lesbians and realized others suffered the same as he did.
Around that same time, he lost his job for refusing to wear skirts to work.
"I said to myself, `Where is the dignity? Where is the respect?' I think the only option some of us are left with is to fight for this to come to an end," he says.
In the next few years, Mukasa co-founded several rights organizations in Uganda and joined a long list of African-based and international groups working for human rights.
But in July 2005 his outspokenness brought Ugandan police to his home on the outskirts of Kampala. Without a warrant, they seized documents relating to the activities of the Sexual Minorities Uganda group he ran, and arrested Yvonne Oyoo, a guest in his house.
During the search, treatment of the pair bordered on indecent assault, according to a December 2008 International Federation for Human Rights newsletter.
Mukasa sued the government for the illegal search but was forced into deep hiding. A safe house became his prison from July 2005 to June 2006.
"It was miserable for me standing up against the government," he says. "My soul was broken. I felt a part of me was dead, except the fighting spirit for gay rights."
After almost a year in virtual isolation, friends helped him reach Johannesburg so he could "breathe some fresh air."
But Mukasa willingly went back to Uganda in May 2007 when his lawsuit began.
He had committed no crime, so the government had no cause to arrest him outright. Nevertheless, he feared for his life and went into hiding.
Forced to live like a criminal, even though he'd committed no crime, and depend on others for survival, he grasped the job opening in Cape Town as a lifeline.
"It was too much for me," he says. "I prayed. I'm a Christian and I prayed to God for this job."
Mukasa speaks of his work with pride. It makes him useful to others and earns him salary, so he no longer feels like a beggar.
The job also keeps him out of Uganda – for now, until things cool down for him there.