Trial by fire
Victor Juliet Mukasa began ‘transgressing gender’, as she puts it, right from childhood. It brought no end of trouble. She was raised as a little girl by her family and treated as one at school, but she rebelled and was punished for doing so every step of the way. ‘I was really too young to know what I was going against.’
As she grew older the problems were compounded. A lucrative job slipped from her grasp because she could not stomach wearing the clothes expected of her. ‘If I wear a skirt or a dress, then it affects my brain. I cannot think about any other thing. I am concentrating on how I look.’
Her search for answers about her gender identity and sexual orientation led first to church. Victor’s mother had been supportive. ‘So when I realized I was falling in love with a girl at school, I told her. She encouraged me to pray. I come from a very staunch Catholic family. We prayed and even after my parents passed away I sought God for help – if he could just heal me from the things that were making me an outcast from society and my family. I went from church to church seeking healing.’
Eventually she found herself in front of a thousand-strong congregation in one of Uganda’s popular Pentecostal Church ‘crusades’. The pastor declared that Victor was harbouring a male spirit from the Indian Ocean. ‘The pastor started laying hands on me and all his boys in the healing ministry came and laid hands over me and started taking off my garments one by one. Some of them were trying to slap the spirit out of me; they were laying hands on my private parts to get the male spirit out. I was really fighting because I did not want them to do what they were doing. And they believed it was the demon trying to fight them. They threw my clothes on a fire. I was stripped naked. I used to bind my breasts at the time. When they touched this part of me it was so humiliating, I cried. And every time I cried they would call it liberation.’
Victor’s ordeal didn’t end there. She spent a week locked up in a room at a rich church member’s guesthouse with the ministry boys trying to ‘heal’ her. Looking back, she now sees how the church in Uganda plays a big role in the oppression of people belonging to sexual minorities. ‘They are violating the human rights of many without anybody raising a finger. I feel they have diverted from what they were called to do, because if you take me through something like that you’re making me sad, humiliated, making me hate myself. This is not what God wants – as a practising Christian, even if I do not go to churches, I know God’s attributes of love, patience and tolerance.’
Victor went on to set up (with two other women) Freedom and Roam Uganda, a lesbian, bisexual, transgender women’s organization. She is also currently chair of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.
Interviews were dogged by controversy – people would gather outside radio stations waiting to attack Victor
Homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda, punishable by life imprisonment. Government and public hostility is rife. Victor decided to get vocal on the subject of rights for sexual minorities when a Ugandan schoolgirl, Paula Rowmushana, killed herself following harassment and beatings, after her love letters from another woman were discovered. ‘We had to express our anger and disappointment in civil society – let alone the Government – for doing nothing about this. All the women’s organizations were silent because it was a lesbian woman. So I went on air and expressed my views.’ This was the first of many interviews dogged by controversy – people would gather outside radio stations waiting to attack Victor; a radio station was heavily fined for hosting her, another threatened with closure by the Government if they let her speak.
There was also trial by tabloid. A woman journalist from Kenya who posed as lesbian was hired to gain Victor’s confidence. This was followed by virulently homophobic tabloid coverage. The harassment culminated in a police raid on her house in 2005. But as victim narratives are not Victor’s style, she took the extraordinary step of suing the Ugandan Government.
‘I said, “No!”. This time they have done something wrong and I will stand on behalf of everybody they have done these things to, to seek justice. So I will sue the Government for wrongfully raiding my house, searching it without a search warrant, arresting my visitor, undressing her to prove that she is a woman, even stealing from my house.’
The decision forced her to go into hiding for nearly a year, with Amnesty International’s help. Eventually, feeling the need ‘to walk on a street again and see other people’ she fled temporarily to South Africa. Even though the court case is about a police raid on her home, Victor has no doubt about its larger resonance. She aims to be present so the court hears her voice, instead of just inspecting documents. ‘It will be the first case of its kind in Uganda where LGBTs are the ones suing the Government and I am hopeful that the truth will come out and there will be justice gained. I am suing because of the constant human rights’ violations that are committed against LGBT people by the Government and the public of Uganda without anyone raising a hand.’
Victor knows that for her and the activists of Sexual Minorities Uganda there is a constant struggle against negative public opinion. ‘We want a liberated LGBT community in Uganda – socially, economically, politically. We want people to see us as their equals, as human beings, as people who have brains, as people who can work, as people who excel and should be credited for that. We are just like everyone else – sexual orientation and different gender identities should not be a big issue. We tackle prejudice bit by bit, and the group believes that some day liberation will come.’