Ugandan LGBTQ activist continues work despite harsh discrimination

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Joseph Kawesi is a transgender woman living in a country where being so potentially carries a penalty of over 10 years in prison.

Although Ugandan government policies on other controversial issues like refugee asylum and HIV treatment/activism are among the most progressive in Africa, Kawesi said the LGBTQ community there suffers from the opposite.

Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since 1894, when it was under British colonial rule. Yet homophobia in the country has been steadily growing since the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, and eventually culminated in the infamous 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which sought to make a criminal conviction of homosexuality punishable by death. While the bill was annulled by the Constitutional Court of Uganda later that year, stigma and violent incidents against the LGBTQ community are still at an all-time high.

In addition to being transgender, Kawesi has been HIV-positive since 2012. And since she has been unable to find a conventional job because of her gender identity, she is forced to live in poverty in the slums of Kampala.

Despite these extreme disadvantages, Kawesi is the founder and executive director of the Come Out Post-Test Club (COPTC), which provides support, advocacy and legal counsel to HIV positive transgender people in Uganda. However, due to her leadership position, Kawesi is even more vulnerable.

Joseph Kawesi stands outside her home in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Kawesi has not visibly transitioned, but no hospital in Uganda provides transition procedures anyway. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

Because she is the executive director of COPTC, which is a government-registered non-profit organization, Kawesi is technically a public figure. As such, she is an easy target for violent homophobia and police brutality.

“One day last year as I was walking near my home, I was stopped by a group of police. They recognized me quickly because they had probably been told who I was and the work I was doing, so they arrested me right away,” Kawesi said.  “They kept me locked up for almost a week, questioning me and beating me every day, and they didn’t give me my [HIV medication] while I was there. They only released me I think because Frank pulled his weight to help get me out.”

[Dr. Frank Mugisha is a fellow prominent LGBTQ activist in Uganda. He is the co-founder and the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and a former Nobel Peace Prize nominee.]

Joseph sits on her mattress in her 20ft by 20ft home. Days before, this space was ransacked due to the nature of her and her roommates’ sexuality. They only left her mattress, a small bike, some clothes, and a poster. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

The Uganda National Police could not be reached for comment. However, in its 2016 report, “And that’s how I survived being killed”, SMUG verified over 260 LGBTQ rights abuses from 2014 to 2015. Forty-eight of those cases involved acts of violence, while 13 cases involved “torture by the state”.

Kawesi is more at risk because of her public status, but the LGBTQ community, and visibly transgender people in particular, are treated similarly if they’re discovered. Instead of facing the rejection by their families or cruel discrimination from their countrymen, Kawesi said that many young transgender or other LGBTQ people, including one of her cousins, choose to commit suicide.

It is illegal to be gay in Uganda, as of 1894.  Being recognizable most times means arrest and/or incarceration. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

Though she does her best to keep her personal contact information confidential, even her home is sometimes subject to hostility. Just days before this interview was conducted, Kawesi’s cramped, 20 feet by 20 feet concrete flat was completely ransacked. Her TV, food, shoes and most of her other meager possessions were stolen. Even the light bulbs were taken from the fixtures. Kawesi said she doesn’t know who the thieves were, but is certain they came because of her and her roommates’ work and gender identity.

Yet despite the day-to-day struggle, along with the fact that she hasn’t even seen or heard from her family in over a decade, Kawesi believes that the work she is doing with COPTC is worth it.

“A few years ago I had four very close trans friends who all died from HIV around the same time,” Kawesi said. “When their families found out that they were HIV-positive, they neglected them. When their disease got worse because they had no money for medication, the hospital they went to refused them treatment because of who they were. My friends Abel, Samuel, Baba and Sande died because no-one would give them the help they deserved. So when [COPTC] was founded, I promised to provide as much help to my community as I could, because no-one else will.”

Above all else though, Kawesi believes that she and other LGBTQ activists must continue to engage with other community, government and religious leaders to help lessen stigma, and take closer steps toward equality.

“We must make people understand that this isn’t a choice, that we don’t “recruit” people into our community, as many believe,” Kawesi said. “We must make parents and families see what they are doing to their children when they reject them and send them away. But most of all, we must make people understand that we are born this way and that nothing they can do will change that.”