A Transwoman in Uganda is Brutally Beaten; This is Her Futile Search For Justice
Author's Note: This article first appeared on my blog during a reporting trip to Kampala, Uganda in September 2012. I was there to investigate the impact of federally funded U.S. “faith based” organizations on anti-gay sentiment, stigma and resultant public policy in Uganda.
During my stay, I was alerted to the brutal beating of a transwoman and invited to speak with her. Subsequently, she invited me to accompany her and a group of her friends and LGBT activists as they sought medical care, police help and eyewitnesses to the beating.
Kampala, Uganda, September 2012.
Clare drove honking and weaving through the choking Kampala traffic, rainbow stickers and flags as well as flags of both Uganda and the United States displayed prominently across the dash. Ruth, Clare's partner, hung on the passenger side; Beyonce, Mich (pronounced "Meesh") and I crammed into the back. Mich's eye was bulging and red. None of us said anything. After some time, we reached the hospital where the diplomat directed Beyonce to go to get Mich help. Beyonce had spoken to the official earlier that day to make the necessary arrangements.
When we pulled into the driveway, there were three representatives of a foreign government waiting in a large, black SUV. This is important to understand: We were all very guarded about being there. None of us were comforted by the presence of some friendly governments’ official.
This is Uganda.
In Uganda, homosexuality is a crime. The stigma against LGBT persons is so great that many face serious, systemic and institutional impediments to medical treatment and justice. Transpersons are beaten, lesbians are raped in attempt to make them straight, and LGBT activists are outed in the media. Homophobia, transphobia and hatred of LGBT persons in Uganda is scarily real. Just because it doesn’t make the front cover of western publications these days doesn’t change the fact that these gender based hate crimes happen every day.
I was in a car full of criminals — at least, according to Ugandan law, which makes a person's sexual identity prosecutable. I was a criminal at that moment too. Through contrivance of Ugandan law, I could have been arrested for “promoting homosexuality” by being with these people, reporting on the crisis facing LGBT persons, trying to get Mich, a transwoman, medical help.
We got out and walked over to meet Beyonce’s contact. We all chatted a bit and then headed toward the hospital entrance. Along the way, I introduced myself as a reporter. The official immediately stopped and turned to look at me. She was clearly displeased, and she looked worried. Beyonce hadn't mentioned they were dragging along some American writer.
The official, now pacing, told me my being there could put Mich and Beyonce in danger. She was angry. I apologized, but for what I wasn’t entirely sure. In fact, she continued, my being there as a member of the press could put the “entire network and relationship with the hospital in jeopardy.”
The relationship the activist community had groomed with the facilit, this clandestine series of phone calls, pick ups, drop offs and assists carefully calculated by another government that cannot talk of their involvement in any of this openly, was a long time in the making. I consented — promised the diplomat repeatedly — to stay outside. I had to swear not mention the hospital, doctor or foreign agency involved.
If they are lucky enough, this is how a transsexual who is brutally assaulted gets medical attention in Uganda. "You have to be careful — you have to find friendly doctors at friendly hospitals if you are a trans-woman,” Beyonce said.
Earlier that day, before we headed out to the hospital, Mich had told me more about her injuries and the attack.
“It’s like through here,” Mich said, gesturing around her throat, “and right through here,” motioning with her fingers across her ribcage where she ached the most at the moment, though her eye was the most obvious outward sign of the beating. Beyonce was beside herself, unable to stop fidgeting, readjusting in her seat, rearranging her purse on the table, then on her lap, then back on the table.
“I haven’t been able to sleep because I will dream that people are after me, when she [Mich] had her trauma, I remembered my trauma and I can’t sleep and I can’t eat.”
Above: Waiting for Clare to drive us to the hospital, Beyonce tells me she can’t dress like a woman as she wants to, but she always carries a purse.
Beyonce was beaten into a coma at a club for not 'dressing like a man,' dragged from the toilet and thrown into the street. A friend of hers said a bouncer yelled at her, telling her, "Go home and put on men’s shoes."
As a result, she was thrust into activism, and started Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU) .Male to female transsexual people in Uganda have different needs compared to the LGB population as a whole. As Beyonce explained, “We [transpersons] are sex workers, a lot of us, and that is all people see it is like we are the awful face of LGBT so we are stigmatized by gay men too. It is lesbians and trans-women that are the worst of the worst in the community’s eyes.”
“They don’t even know about transphobia because we don’t exist. Unless we are on papers we aren’t humans,” she said. “To the government we don’t exist, if we don’t exist how do we educate people about us?”
The beating had taken place earlier that week. Mich had made arrangements to meet up with an old friend at a bar on the outskirts of Kampala. It was warm as usual, and Mich looked forward to the night out. Mich thought it was just going to be the two of them catching up and having some drinks, but her friend invited someone else along, a man that Mich didn't know.
After some chatting, the unknown "friend" began taunting Mich. "You look like my girlfriend." "You have a figure like a woman." "I don’t like the way you look."
It happened quickly. Mich thought maybe he was just joking around. She did not expect that this man, whom she had never met before, whom she had not offended at all would get violent. But he did.
In the open courtyard of the club, he pushed her to the concrete, and started to "thump" her face mercilessly. He held Mich by the throat, intending to strangle her to death. The assailant’s friends joined in the beating, kicking Mich in the ribs and chest.
Mich believed that what saved her was her constant screaming for help. Finally, the askari (guard) responded by pulling Mich away from her attacker, allowing her to run away. Mich found a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) and escaped to a friend’s house.
Mich waited two days to report the beating, only after her friend Beyonce found out about the assault and pushed her to do so. The criminalization of LGBT persons, overwhelming stigma and institutionalized discrimination in Uganda prevent victims from coming forward. Statistics aren’t officially kept on anti-gay crime in Uganda. How can the police keep statistics on a crime that doesn’t exist, on a population that is outlawed?
Clare accompanied Mich to Old Kampala Police Station. As a leading LGBT activist in Uganda, she is alerted to these beatings and routinely shows up in courts and police stations throughout Kampala to advocate for the victim. Officers care little for the crime itself, instead focusing on sexual identity or gender before they take the case seriously. Reports of LGBT persons being stripped in public and in police stations when they came forward to report a beating or rape are quite common. In this case, the first question the policeman asked at the station was if "this" [Mich] was a boy or girl.
Clare couldn’t contain herself. She yelled at the officer, "What kind of question is this? What kind of professionalism is this?" But as an LGBT community leader in Uganda, her visibility makes her a target for the police and she could only push so far.
Above: Mich and Beyonce in the back seat of Clare’s car after finishing at the hospital, on our way across Kampala to the nightclub where the attack happened. The group has to find a witness, as the police won't.
After the hospital, we were on our way to the bar, driving again, Clare honking and the music loud, to find witnesses to the beating. The cops don’t do that kind of work here. They don’t investigate, certainly not an attack on an LGBT person, and not for a crime like a transphobic or a homophobic attack; such crimes don’t exist. Mich had to become her own detective, find her own proof, present some sort of evidence beyond a bloodied and beaten face.
During the drive across town, I found out more about the attack.
Mich’s friend who invited her out for drinks refused to testify on her behalf. Clare told me the friend is scared of helping Mich out. Clare tried to talk to him on the phone, telling him he could give his statement to the police anonymously. He refused. Finding another witness was up to the group. Ruth jokingly said that it felt a little like "mob justice."
She was right; it did.The chance of finding a witness willing to come forward from the bar or anywhere else was unlikely. An LGBT legal committee had tried to push the issue further but couldn't without testimony from someone who saw what happened to Mich. When it comes to these kinds of crimes, people in Uganda don’t want to get involved.
A song Beyonce loved came on the car radio. Arms raised, she squealed, "This reminds me of Cape Town — everyone is so free!” And then she was on to India. "I just love Calcutta! In Calcutta they don’t hate little girls who are born little boys."
But just because she loves other places where she can be herself more easily she doesn’t want to leave. None of the group wanted to leave Uganda. Despite the reincarnation of the infamous Bahati Bill (aka: “kill the gays” bill) through proposed amendments to the penal code (Sec. 145) and Minister of Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo’s crusade against “pro gay” NGOs and breaking up LGBT workshops, they stay because they have to stay.
"This is our fight as Ugandans. This is our country. We can’t run away because of what we go through. As advocates, we have to help bring about change, a change that was set into motion because an activist one day said enough is enough, we need to break the silence," Clare told me.
When we arrived at the bar, no one would speak about the beating. The security guard told us he only speaks Rwandese; that's all Beyonce could make out from an attempted conversation.
"He doesn’t speak Lugandan, he doesn’t speak English? He doesn’t even speak Swahili?" Beyonce said, "He's lying." Chances were she was right.
We got no further inside. The owner insisted that the staff members working that night — the night Mich was beaten in public — aren’t there anymore. “We have new staff,” she told Mich and Clare as they stood at the counter. Clare looked at her incredulously. “You have new staff? This was just Tuesday.”
“It was around 11:00 we were here and here,” Mich said, pleading, pointing to different locations in the bar where she and the men were during the night. But the owner wouldn't budge except to say the person she thought Mich was looking for left the country, and then nothing more.
We all realized we were getting nowhere. Instantly, it seemed as though we were all exhausted. We decided to leave.
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a hate crime as, "A criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin."
But the only way what we in the states call a hate crime against an LGBT person ends up in the news in Kampala is if there is a trashy photo of a beat up trans-woman or LGBT person that can be splashed across the front page of some tabloid. That kind of shock value is a good sell.
When I interviewed Mr. Lokodo, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, one of my first days in Kampala he told me point-blank, "Homosexuality is a sickness. They [LGBT persons] must be contained and away from society.” He also told me his opinion on the matter is in “lock step” with that of First Lady Janet Museveni.
As Clare told me toward the end of our day, "This is what we deal with every day. We go to bed with it, we wake up with it. This is what it is like to be an LGBT person in Uganda. You cannot underestimate someone pointing at you or taunting you in any situation. You have to read between the lines and realize it as a potential threat to your life. And you have to ensure your safety."
Note: Clare was recently honored with other LGBTI human rights defenders in Uganda by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.