Beyond the Struggle: Trans Activist Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro on the Everyday Joys of Embracing Her Identity
Hailing from a country that criminalized queerness comes with its own challenges. But Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro is choosing to find the joy in her life as a trans women instead of dealing in the loneliness and trauma that can come with being a leading voice in the movement to change the status quo.
Protest comes in many forms. For some, it's marching in the streets with picket signs and bullhorns. For others, it's boycotting or petitioning. For Ugandan trans activist Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro, it's simply existing, fully and openly as herself.
Remaining hyper-visible on a continent where non-binary identity is shunned and sexual relations between people of the same sex remains illegal in a whopping 37 out of 54 countries according to Amnesty International, is in itself a radical act. Still, Kentaro has chosen to take her activism even further through her work as a storyteller, which she acknowledges as a tool for queer Africans to become the authors of their own histories.
In 2016 Kentaro starred in the groundbreaking documentary The Pearl of Africa, making her one of the first openly trans Ugandan women. At the time, however, the activist didn't fully realize how much of an impact the film would have. Instead, she says it was completely "organic" and humbly refers to it as a simple look into her everyday life. "I didn't even anticipate it having an impact in the community, and among my friends and family," she tells OkayAfrica "But [because of it] people have started having this conversation around transness."
Despite the obvious trials that she and other members of the LGBTQ community face in Uganda—where in 2013, the government moved to make same-sex relationships punishable by life imprisonment through its infamous Anti-homosexuality Act—Kentaro is quick to assert that her identity as a trans woman is not primarily rooted in struggle, but rather in the joy of living in one's truth. (One of those challenges came when Kentaro was forced to flee to Kenya from Uganda due to the legislation.) There is a quiet yet invincible power that arises from living in that truth, and for those traditionally deemed "other" by society, this is perhaps the most vocal activism there is.
We spoke with the OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree about her ongoing work with queer African youth, what it means to live life authentically, and the lasting and profound impact of The Pearl of Africa.
Kentaro on the taboo that remains around sexual identity on the continent:
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.
On the cultural power of storytelling as a tool for the African LGBTQ community:
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.
On the unexpected but lasting impact of The Pearl of Africa:
The Pearl of Africa wasn't meant to be as it ended up becoming. It was simply a shout from the darkness from a trans person who wanted to say something to the world, and to her community to say, "You are not alone, and because I can do this, you also can do this," because the collective experiences of trans people are relatable. [Since then] there's been a shift. I recently moved back home to Uganda and I realize that The Pearl of Africa has had an organic reach that I didn't even anticipate it having among the community, and among my friends, and family. But people have started having this conversation around transness.
Also, the thing for me was being authentic as people, and how seldom we are truly authenticated as people. We all individually go through an identity crisis, especially since we are faced with a world that tells us what we should be. In a way, that overshadows our own narrative of what we think we should be, and it's a struggle that everyone can identify with.
It's also about being able to fill a niche within Ugandan conversation about who are we as Ugandans, given our own socio-economic struggles. The Pearl of Africa has had that reach, and has been something that most Ugandans have been able to access.
I just got back home last August, and I was walking in town and minding my business and someone was like, "I know you. I watched you from this movie." And other people pick it up because of its name… and before they know it, it's serving as a means as an intermediary—they've brought it to their sitting rooms and they've had conversations.
On why she doesn't consider herself a spokesperson for trans people:
I've just had this conversation with my brother, and he was speaking about the things I have been able to achieve at may age and how I have thrown myself in dire situations, in which I could've died. I told him it wasn't about bravery or courage. It was about the effect of inaction, which meant that [if I did nothing] I would simply exist and not live. If I had done nothing about my life and not pushed, I would still be alive in this world, but I would not really be living, just existing. I would not be happy, I would not be fulfilled. All of the things I have pushed myself into have exposed me to the idea that I would rather not live my life any other way.
I wanted to live my life fulfilled—however long or short that life is.
In 2017 when I asked my government to change my name and gender on my passport, it was scary, no one had ever done it and I could have been arrested. Uganda is a very scary country. But I sat among a legal tribunal of 10 men, and explained to them what it means to be transgender. I explained to them what gender means, and spoke about my reality. These are people who have never had someone openly speak about these things with them in a space that's non-judgmental, and for the first time in history Uganda gave a transgender person a legal gender and name change.
It's such a monumental thing that happened, and a thing that can change when one person starts speaking. So, I feel like it's really a personal conviction to push yourself in those spaces. It does have an impact on one's life but also for the life of the community.
On how living life as an openly trans person impacts youth:
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.
On looking beyond "the struggle" and the everyday joys of living in her truth:
When I speak about my life, I don't speak about it like its monotone. It's not a "one note" story. It's a mountain-high history that has high moments and low moments. Some moments are more eventful than others and some moments are pretty much uneventful.
Some of the things I celebrate are the wins I have been able to get with my family, being able to change their attitudes. For them to be able to understand what being trans means. I come from a family of five mothers. My father had children with five women, and we were twelve. We were really like that Cheaper By The Dozen movie.
Having to go one-by-one and change minds made me believe that change is possible, change can happen, it has nothing to do with religion and it has nothing to do with how someone was born. [It is about] being able to have that small impact within my ecosphere. It means that wherever my sisters, wherever my brothers are, they will not target people who may be like me. They have had a real, personal touch of what queerness means and what transness is. There is change that will happen because I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with them. And to be authentic before them even when it had an implication.
My family is like a Telenovela, they say things that you would be like, "Have these guys attended queer university?" I am speaking about my nephews and nieces who are like, 5 years old, who say "I want to be like Aunt Cleo."
[Another joy] is being able to advance career wise, being able to go to school and being able to choose my name and gender, which in my national ID was a huge challenge but mostly a huge win. I feel like most of my wins have been in my personal life. 'Cause that's my world, and I feel like I exist in a world that never questions me. I go to a church that knows I am transgender. We never discuss it, but they know I am transgender. It's not labeled a "queer church." Instead, it's a church that a trans person can walk in, praise, speaks with her pastor. No one is ever distracted. I mean, no one ever talks about it, 'cause no one has had to ever declare their sexuality when they come to church anyway.
For me, that's change. It's change in a place where if you're a minority, identity never becomes something that needs to be discussed. It is freedom to worship, or to work, or to access education—that's movement for me. That movement is happening, and I get to witness.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity