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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Uganda's Most Wanted

By Chris Jai Centeno

Victor Mukasa may be one of the most wanted men in Uganda.

His crimes? Being involved with initiating a Trans Declaration in 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as having conducted workshops in various parts of Africa that have sparked trans activism.

Mukasa has been in a self-imposed exile for a year from his home country of Uganda after facing years of oppression. He is currently residing in South Africa, working as a program associate with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

The 33-year-old transgender activist was recognized for his human rights efforts as he was named the international grand marshal of Toronto’s Pride festivities last month. Mukasa has been working to bring trans issues to the forefront -- something that has rarely ever been in the country's, let alone the region's, list of concerns.

"That signified a lot. Right from the trans march to the Pride parade, there were issues that were being tackled and unity was being included," Mukasa said in a Toronto hotel. "This is a beginning of a new phase of collaboration, cooperation, and the new relationship of the human rights movement of Canada and Africa, which is definitely going to lead us very far."

His experiences coming out as transgender five years ago -- an event similarly challenging as his coming-out as a lesbian years before that -- show that living as an LGBT person in Uganda is extremely difficult. In 2005, Ugandan government officials raided Mukasa's home and arrested a Kenyan friend who was staying at his house at the time. Documents and files regarding his human rights work in the country were illegally confiscated. Mukasa and his friend took the government to court a year later, and in December 2008 they finally won their case.

"It wasn't easy and it is still not easy," he said, adding that he still goes back to his native land when necessary. "Uganda is my home, I was born and bred there. For 32 years that was my home. My struggle most importantly is not in Canada, not in Britain, it is not in South Africa ... but my permanent struggle is in Uganda. [Uganda] is not OK for us to stay in. We are at a point where we should be in some kind of an asylum-seeking process. For me to be kept away is such pain."

Religious fundamentalism and other antigay influences are a cause of concern not just in Uganda but also in other parts of Africa. Last March religious zealots in Uganda intensified their propaganda campaign against LGBT people. Many African LGBT men and women face abuses daily, including isolation, eviction, humiliation, rape, and beatings.

"My name can be the most wanted in Uganda even when I'm not there," Mukasa said. "Some people stay -- not because they are not being persecuted. Actually, they are being persecuted more than anybody else -- but because that is their struggle and it is their calling. They were called to liberate others, to speak on behalf of others who could not speak.

"We have a lot of people who are saying, 'There are no transsexuals and transgender people in Africa. But the IGLHRC is committed to defending people's rights. It has been there and has empowered me to really deal with situations such as the one in Uganda," he said. "So I've been equipped with resources to deal with those situations in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa in a better way, a more strategic way."

Through the IGLHRC, Mukasa was able to organize the first workshop on gender identity and other transgender issues in Africa, bringing together activists from across the eastern and southern parts of the continent. As a result, trans organizations are being established in countries including Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, and Namibia.

"Even at this point internationally we are short," he said. "But we are there and we are claiming our space as African trans activists representing the African trans movement internationally. The good thing is, internationally, people are giving us our space. We are there despite all of the challenges we have.

"Once we unite as an LGBT human rights movement and later on as LGBT people in the world, then we are going to achieve whatever we want. It looks like [LGBT people] are free in Toronto, but you won’t be free until everybody is free. Some people don’t see the hope of freedom, but if we work together there is hope for freedom everywhere. The world will become a better place."


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