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“Sexual identity is not a crime”: taking the first steps to fight transphobia in Uganda


Beyonce Tushabe, founder of Transgender Equality Uganda (c) Alliance

“We are human, we exist, our human rights should not be violated”, the passionate and powerful words of Beyonce Tushabe, founder of Transgender Equality Uganda, one of the first organisations of its kind in a country where stigma and discrimination against transgender people is entrenched and endemic.

Transgender people endure rape, discrimination in healthcare services, and harassment from the police and prison officers. Many transgender people are rejected by their families and miss out on educational opportunities, leaving some with no option but sex work to support themselves. Sexual violence towards transgender people and transgender sex workers put the community at a higher risk of HIV infection.

Life and death

Beyonce’s organisation is taking the first steps to fight back against these daily human rights violations. This is no easy task in an environment where campaigners live with the very real threat of violence and murder. “Ugandan activism is life and death” Beyonce explains, “as you can see from David Kato [the LGBT activist who was murdered in 2011]”.

Beyonce started the organisation after she found a lack of recognition and representation of the unique needs of the trangender people, “Transgender issues were being neglected by the Ugandan LGB [lesbian gay and bisexual] movement and transgender sex workers’ issues were being ignored by the commercial sex work movement” she says. Transgender Equality Uganda is only just starting out, but Beyonce is hopeful that as the organisation grows it will be able to build links with the international transgender movement, and learn from the approaches that have worked in other countries.

Education is the key

Beyonce knows from experience that deeply held beliefs about sexuality can be challenged and minds can be changed. Recently she has reconnected with her father, who had previously shunned her.

“As I grew up I felt more and more like a woman, and my dad rejected me so I moved to Kampala” she explains. Unable to find any other employment, Beyonce became a sex worker at the age of 16. During this time she experienced violence and harassment from clients and the police.

After her father fell ill, Beyonce returned home, “I looked after him until he was well, I was able to pay his hospital bills through the money I made doing sex work. It was because of this that my father forgave me and accepted me. He was ignorant before and that’s why he rejected me”.

Beyonce is firm in her belief that education is the answer to fighting discrimination. She plans to interview her father for a documentary and use the story in her advocacy work. “We need to educate the government, doctors and the health system. If you educate them, they will learn” she says.

The work of groups representing sexual minorities is made all the more difficult by the Ugandan government’s proposed ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ which threatens to introduce severe punishments for people perceived as homosexual and will potentially have a devastating impact on the country’s HIV response “We must fight this bill and educate the Ugandan government that sexual identity is not a crime”.

Beyonce visited the UK in February 2013 as part of the Student Stop AIDS Campaign’s speaker tour, which gives activists from the field the opportunity to share their stories across the country at parliamentary events and university talks. “Before this tour I’d never told my story” says Beyonce, “I feel empowered, the more you tell it, the more the badness goes away”.

Read more
  • You can read more about Beyonce’s experience of growing up transgender in Uganda here, and find out more about Transgender Equality Uganda here.
  • In 2013 a three-year Alliance project in Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Tanzania will start to build capacity of our Linking Organisations and implementing partners to work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Read more here.