“It wasn’t until I was twenty-three, and stumbled into a queer bar in Kampala, that I began to find a community of people who were like me. I felt liberated.
“I could lean on someone; tell them what I was going through. We didn’t have all the answers, sure, but it helped us start to navigate what it means to be trans in Africa today. What I loved was how the community we formed back then was trying so hard to change the lives of people who identify as queer in our country. For those short, blissful moments, we would forget our lonely lives.”
For Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro, being trans and unapologetic in Uganda is a huge feat. Baring her life in a riveting documentary, “The Pearl of Africa” she discusses the power of storytelling, the effects of living as a trans woman and why LGBTQ is a conversation that should be embraced in Africa.
On the cultural power of storytelling as a tool for the African LGBTQ community, she says:
”I think it is important when approaching the conversation around sexual education in Africa to use things that we have used to communicate as Africans. One of the ways we’ve been taught to communicate is through storytelling. My activism revolves around the use of film and art—using film as a tool to be able to tell stories. In my tribe in Western Uganda, we use stories and riddles, and that’s how our culture has been passed on, through the telling of stories.
I feel that it is important for African queer people to start and continue owning and telling their own narratives, so that they become part of the narratives of this generation to be consumed later by the people in the future, and so that there are known plots of the struggle that is happening right now.”
Speaking on the ill reception that trans people face, Kentaro says:
”My understanding is that Africa is still grappling with issues of sexuality and gender. Sexuality and gender represent two tools that the patriarchy uses to control people, and once that tool is let go of, then people can literally be anything they would like to be. I feel like the combination of sexuality and gender have been relegated to controversy and as issues to discuss for later, so it’s difficult to have that conversation right now. Simply because [it] means that [LGBTQ] people could realize that they do have autonomy over their bodies. So, as it is now, it all feels like a matter of control.”
Speaking on the ripple effect of being unapologetically trans, she says:
”The tran-phobia I’ve felt, a huge part of it hasn’t been physical violence towards me. It has been humiliation that has been verbal, that’s been psychological. But I say that while respecting trans people who have dealt with physical abuse.
I grew up among very Christian friends and folk and I used to go Pentecostal church and I asked my girlfriends “how come you never minded me?” I used to sing praise and worship, I used to be a part of a youth group and in spite of doing all these things, I never turned down my queerness. I was very heavily queer. While going through these things it always baffled me. I wondered “How come people don’t mind me.” It was a pathological thought that if people minded, I would feel like a confirmed queer person.
So I asked them “why?” And that friend of mine told me that it’s because “you walk in this world with your head held up so high. And with such a confidence that it makes the people who doubt you and think you’re wrong think that it’s them who are wrong to doubt that you should exist in this world as you are.”
And that was the most powerful thing. And that is really my message to other youth who are struggling with existing in their authenticity and expressing themselves. Once you shrink and allow people to doubt who you are and to think that you are wrong. Once people see their wrongness, they will feel empowered to actually express their phobias.
And I think this is my message to trans people to be able to walk with that pride, and confidence and fullness of themselves in that habitation.”