From my fieldnotes (Kampala, 2015).
I asked if she was ever worried about people recognizing her here.
I moved to this side because there are no newspapers on this side. Most people don’t read newspapers here. They can’t read because of the illiteracy. So they don’t really know me.
— Okay, but some know. But most don’t have work they just stay at home all day. At the last place we had problems with the newspapers and the police. They arrested my friend ██████.
Many Ugandan newspapers like the “Red Pepper” run stories that “out” people — like in the notorious “Uganda’s top 200 homosexuals exposed” article.
She told me after Pride last week some of her neighbors came back late one night — at around 4am — and started shouting ‘I didn’t know we had a gay here!’ ‘he is gay, he is gay.’ They were screaming just outside her window. But she didn’t leave her room. She didn’t engage. Then they tried to contact the landlord. They told him that ‘a gay is living here.’ But the landlord told them ‘he was the first one living here and I don’t have a problem with him living here.’ ██████ told me that the way you behave is really important when you are trans. “I get along with people.”
I asked — do you mind it when — your landlord calls you a “he” —
or when people call you a “he” ?
No, I don’t mind it because they don’t know. They don’t know who I really am. They see me — I have a beard. I dress like a male. They just don’t know who I really am so I don’t mind it. They haven’t been educated.
Everyone knows ██████ . She identifies a trans woman. Is a self proclaimed “crazy bitch” and is very outspoken in the Kampala kuchu community. She is a leader — an activist for persons living with HIV from the most at risk populations — like sexual minorities.
She was an emcee at Ms./Mr. Pride pageant last week. “When I was on the stage the crowd was cheering. Did you hear them? It’s not even because I was good its just people know me. Everyone knows me.”
She co-founded come out post test club with her friend ██████. It’s meant to support people living with HIV who are sexual and gender minorities. She herself is HIV positive she tells me.
She continues to wash her laundry at the edge of the room.
“At first it was just a support group. There was a trans woman who died — ██████ — in 2012. She was doing sex work.”
“People don’t know what it means to lose someone. When ██████ died from AIDS I was really so sad. So sad that I didn’t even cry.”
And after her death we had lost four trans women in two months. Now we have 72 members in Uganda. Even more in Kenya — they were seeking asylum.
I asked about growing up. And ██████ told me it wasnt easy.
“At first I thought I was gay. I always thought I was a girl — I used to put on girl stuff. And I didn’t know about gender and sexuality. But from trainings I discovered things of gender and sexuality. But ever since I was young I thought I was gay.”
I pulled the mosquito net back and sat on down on the edge of her bed. She started folding some clothes and then her phone rang again.
She started sex work when she was 16 after he parents kicked her out of the house for “being gay.” She left her parents home in Eastern Uganda and came to Kampala. “I was really lucky because I met ██████ within like the first week. So I stayed with him.”
And who did you sleep with — were they men — gay men?
Yes, men. I slept with men. Most were gay. But I really don’t know what they identified as. Some were married. Some were bisexual. Some were just gay.
I used to do it every night. On a good night I would make 50,000 – 70,000 shillings. And back then that was really a lot — that was for like 3-4 times in a night — 3-4 different guys.
Was it difficult to find clients?
At some bars it was hard but at some bars it’s easy.
Did they come to you or did you go to them?
They came to us. “I mean with me — they could tell I’m gay. And there is a way we would dance — the way you dance, the way you sit matters a lot.”
We used to try to get clients at the ██████ Resort — the road near there. Before we used to stand on the streets. At times there would be so many sex workers. Now its just mainly for female sex workers. Because there are many hotels around that side and the people in them are foreign. So we targeted them so we can charge a higher rate.
And sometimes people still contact me on Facebook. “I don’t do sex work anymore though because of my HIV status. The doctors told me not to.” But some clients still message me on Facebook. They will ask — I will just refer them to another person. You will find someone messages you asking for it — then they will block you after I respond, then when they want to message you again they will unblock you. She laughed.
Do you ever try to blend in — to fit in — like when your’re walking out?
“When I go out I walk normally. I walk the way I’m supposed to walk.” People think I’m feminine —
What makes you feminine?
“It’s just the way I am”
I mean what makes people think that you are feminine ? — because in America people might think that your very masculine —
“Yeah when I was in South Africa someone said that they were excited because they slept with a straight guy.”
They were talking about you?
“Yeah” — she said laughing. And he was a gay guy.
“But I think its the way I walk, and the way I talk. Not the way I dress.” I wear clothes that were designed for men going out.