Serina’s journey as a transgender youth in Uganda

Serina is a vibrant 19-year-old transgender woman living in Uganda. Like many other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the country, she has faced stigma, discrimination and violence because of her gender or sexual identity.

Growing up as a transgender person wasn’t easy. Serina remembers always being interested in female clothing, but her parents didn’t accept it and her mother often beat her after catching Serina trying on her sister’s clothes.

When Serina turned 16, she confided in a friend about her gender identity. However, instead of supporting her, the friend told Serina’s parents. “My father disowned me immediately and excommunicated me from home and my village entirely,” said Serina.

Banished from her home, Serina was forced to fend for herself and found a job as a bar attender in a different town. Here she was able to present as a woman, and this was how the community knew her. Still, Serina’s situation presented several challenges. Men in the bar often made advances towards her, but she knew this could put her in danger. “I knew I couldn’t get so close to anyone because if they found out [my sex], they would hurt me instead,” she said.

For years Serina lived in constant fear of being ‘found out’ as transgender. One day her mother, with whom she had not had any contact since leaving home, came looking for her, using Serina’s original, male, name. As a result, Serina’s transgender identity was disclosed to her community, who turned against her. She suffered stigma, discrimination and sexual violence, which also lead to her acquiring HIV.

Serina eventually got in contact with Alive Medical Services (AMS), a non-profit medical centre that provides free HIV testing, care, treatment, counselling and support. Here, she was tested for HIV, and when found she was HIV positive she was provided with antiretroviral treatment and other services.

Serina Uganda EJAF Deep EngagementSerina during a consultation session with a health worker at AMS.

AMS is one of several partners of an Elton John AIDS Foundation-funded programme managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance that aims to increase demand for and access to stigma-free and friendly health services for LGBT people. The grant is implemented by Community Health Alliance Uganda together with clinical partners like AMS and community-led organisations who provide information, condoms and lubricant, and encourage people to access HIV testing and other services.

Since June this year more than 3,000 people reached within this programme have accessed HIV testing, 2,800 have been screened for sexually transmitted infections, and nearly 70,000 condoms and 18,000 lubricants have been distributed.

Today, Serina’s health has improved considerably. “When I came to AMS, I was malnourished and had no source of income to afford food, so I was provided with nutrition support. In addition, whenever I have a medical emergency, I call upon AMS. For example three months ago a mob severely battered me for who I am, AMS sent help to pick me up, and I was admitted, given treatment and was nursed back to health.”

“My friends and I always have access to the services we need, and the counsellors and doctors treat us with love and dignity regardless of who we identify as. AMS also organises special events for young people living with HIV and I am glad that my friends and I from our community are always invited to interact with other young people. Even if I do not have a proper source of income yet, I am still glad that my health is better, and I am well taken care of by AMS.”

 *The name has been changed to protect her identity.