Cleopatras' journey to legal recognition in Uganda

For Cleopatra Kambugu, 2022 will feel like the first year of her life. Cleo recently got her national identification document that has her name and gender on it. It says female. With that, Cleopatra is the first transgender woman in Uganda to have her national ID changed to reflect her name and gender. To better understand this victory of legal recognition, we interviewed Cleopatra about her journey.


Not just a simple name change

You might be thinking that this does not seem like a big deal. But it is not just a simple name change for transgender people, much less so for Cleopatra.
In public discourse, adversities lead to camps of people saying she should not be trying to change her gender. You have people defending the government for taking their time and others defending the government for asking her to prove she is a woman. There are camps of people questioning whether Cleo is an authentic African or if she is someone under the influence of the West. That is why legal recognition matters, not only for Cleopatra, but for all transgender people across Uganda and beyond.

Our existence is our truth


Cleo approaches human rights discussions from a sensitisation point of view. She says: “I want to know from people, what is really scaring you? What scares you so much that my passport reads “F”? Does it affect the cost of sugar and tea? Will it result in rental increments? Does it affect your business?”. She continues that getting down to these questions helps people get to the heart of the issue. She uses the same approach in navigating family acceptance. “For my dad it was: ‘I gave birth to you and these were my expectations. What are people going to say? How do you think my friends feel about me?’” “For my mom it was: ‘I wanted you to get married and have kids’ - I told her I would still be able to do those things and she said: ‘Oh, okay. Then everything is okay’.


“Changing the world is changing my own micro space. This is how each one of us will contribute to changing the world. My micro space can be my family, my church, my neighborhood and it can be Uganda”, says Cleo.


Cleo addresses the media with the same approach. She highlights: “for me it has always been about access. I am here, it is my prerogative to open the world in terms of access. Even in kindergarten I wanted to know why I can’t have this, or why are things this way? Access is not just about gender for me, it has always been about equity and access. The freest person in the world is a child and as a child I always spoke up.”


“Success for me is the next transgender person having it easier because Cleo has done this. Success for me is the next young transgender person having me to look up to. When I was growing up I didn’t have anyone to look up to or to see someone out there who they can have as a role model for their journey.


I exist and therefore then I should be given an ID. 


The extremists who say that queer people and transgender people should not exist then that is an altogether different conversation. When we start saying a certain group of people should not exist then are we talking about a genocide or erasure of a population. Because there is no other way to remove an existing people from existence.”

Navigating gendered systems

“Everything is gendered, so if I have an “M” on my ID and I walk into a hospital in the healthcare system my specific healthcare needs will not be addressed as everyone is looking at me through a broken gender lens. It is disingenuous for one arm of the government to recognise us under the Ministry of Health HIV work and then not recognise us when it comes to the Ministry of Registration.


In the education system in Uganda gender and sexuality are not taught under biology, but it is taught under Christian Religious Education and under Islamic Religious Education. So, we are introduced to an understanding of ourselves as sin.


Even everyday societal settings are gendered - I would get shortlisted for a job and all would be well until they discovered the person I was. Simple things such as leasing a house would get complicated and sometimes become outright transphobic. I could only buy assets such as land using my partner's name.”


A civilian win for policy change

Cleo says she didn’t undertake her name change process for purposes of activism. She did it, so that she could live a semblance of a normal life. “I had been asked to prove if I was the person in my passport as I tried to get a visa to travel to South Africa and been asked to prove my gender. I’ve experienced border harassment every time I travelled between Kenya and Uganda. Finally, I sought an appointment to see the commissioner at the department of immigration. He was an old man and very understanding.”


Cleo says people are just seeing the changes on her national ID as an insignificant event, but for her it has been a lifetime of affirming her gender that included doing hormone replacement therapy, having a surgery, doing social transition, which was documented in the Netflix miniseries “The Pearl of Africa”.

Cleo says:
<<All this was personal for me, but I hope this is going to be a civilian win that translates into policy change.I hope the community here in Uganda can take it up and use it as a precedent to push for change for themselves.>>


Cleo works with UHAI EASHRI, East Africa’s first indigenous funder for LGBTIQ and sex worker movements. She believes that UHAI’s work and the Love Alliance, of which UHAI is a member, is important because it gives intersectionality to all of the issues of gender, sexuality, SRHR as well as HIV and AIDS and the lived realities of the communities she is serving.


This story is written by UHAI EASHRI and AIDSFONDS as told by Cleopatra Kambugu to Maarten Van Bijnen