Transgender Day Of Remembrance Memorial

11/20/2016 07:30 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2016
Cleopatra Kambugu in The Pearl Of Africa, transgender day of remembrance
Jonny Von Wallström
Cleopatra Kambugu in The Pearl Of Africa, transgender day of remembrance

About three years ago, I stepped on a plane to Kampala, Uganda. At the time, the media was reporting about Uganda as a place where LGBTQ people were being killed. It seemed to be a miserable place to live. Or even visit as a tourist.

But knowing that foreign reporting can be extremely biased or subjective. With local media over exaggerating certain topics in the chase for attention. I always question stories like these, especially if they all of a sudden become a worldwide phenomenon. Often there’s more to it than what the media headlines are telling you, and very few reporters have any deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re reporting on.

In 2011 I experienced this first hand as I was making my last film Zero Silence about the Arab spring. I had been filming in the Middle East since 2008, and all of a sudden I found myself on a plane together with other journalists from Sweden. 1 or 2 had experience from working in the Middle East. But the rest was going there for the first time to report on a global news story. Some went straight to the “ghetto” for some headline effective story, and then ended up in jail...

But sure, Uganda is in many ways a horrible place to be gay or trans. With family and society discriminating and harassing. But these things are rarely as black and white as the media portray it to be.

When I stepped off the plane in Entebbe, Uganda. I met up with Cleopatra Kambugu, Africa’s trans pioneer who I had been following with my camera for a couple of months. At the time the situation in Uganda seemed to be a matter of life and death. But moving in to live with Cleo and her boyfriend suggested something different.

Maybe I was naive, but it didn’t feel like there was a threat. Cleo had been transitioning to a woman for a while, she was already on hormones. And at the time, people perceived her as any other woman. But going to places where she had been known as a man, that had to be done with caution.

She knew what her limitations was, and had learned to live within them. At times, I’m sure it was depressing. But on a larger scale, I think that Cleo and other marginalized LGBTQ people focus on other things. Rather than dwelling on what she had little control over. Cleo had choosen to focus more on enjoying the life she had been given.

She was, and still is a trans activist, much because of that, Cleo knew that as long as she didn’t show that she was trans. She could get some health care support. But most of the Ugandan trans population doesn’t know how that works. There is no support from the government. Which means that instead of fighting HIV, they help spreading the virus by by scaring LGBTQ people not to get health care.

With rapidly growing HIV numbers, the LGBTQ population have been blamed for what in reality is a lack in sexual education, especially within the youth. It’s a taboo subject that is growing into a huge problem in Uganda.

Although condom use continues to be a commonly practiced strategy to reduce the risk of HIV infection, its use declined substantially in Uganda between 2005 and 2011.

Statistics from the 2014 UNAIDS Fast Track report, put condom use among people with multiple sexual partners at less than 30 percent. In the same report, condom use among sex workers was estimated to be between 30 to 50 percent and among men who have sex with men at less than 30 percent.

On the first day I got there, we went to a meeting to celebrate the transgender day of remembrance. A memorial for friends and colleagues who have died, many by the HIV virus.

First, Cleo held an inspiring speech to the group. To them, she’s like a mother, a role model that has been called Africa’s Caitlyn Jenner. But as darkness fell over Kampala, one after one they lit candles to celebrate the death of many friends fighting for trans rights. As they did, the seriousness came over the group. Laughter turned into sadness. I felt like a spoiled brat, having been able to fly out from Sweden to document this night.

As soon as their prayer was over, someone started singing, and what once was a place filled with sadness, changed into joy and celebration. Moments like those are what I live for. I try to capture that in my films, to give other people a chance to experience places they might be too afraid or uncomfortable to put themselves in.

It’s strange where the camera takes me. One day I can be on my farm, feeding my peacocks, the next I’m invited into private and deeply emotional space like this. I’m deeply honored to have the job I have as I documentary filmmaker. I just wished more people, Donald Trump maybe, could experience this instead of building walls to shield himself.

Nobody who has stood side by side to Egyptian activists on Tahrir Square as a giant cloud of rocks where coming closer and closer. As time freezes, and you wonder if the rocks will kill you or the man or women next to you. No one, who has stood there, with women and kids as jet planes are buzzing over, not knowing if they will bomb the whole square. Nobody who’s experienced that will ever have such an outrageous idea as to register muslims. Did we not learn anything from Hitler?

Coming to a place like that, I expected people to be on edge. But instead, Cleo and her boyfriend Nelson insisted that we would go out. First for some clubbing. To regular clubs like any other person. If you come from a western country, the media would have led you to believe that this would be impossible. But coming there, I realized it was rather the opposite. Many clubs where mixed. I went to one LGBTQ fashion party which was held at a regular open bar. Not once did it feel threatened, on the contrary, I've probably never felt safer.

But then, a couple of months later, the "kill-the-gays-bill" was put into law in a Uganda. Leading to a situation that changed drastically for not only Cleo, but many other LGBTQ people. Many were forced to leave their homes. Cleo was one of them, who after being in hiding for more than a month, left the country in fear. Leaving her loving boyfriend and family behind. Not knowing when she would see them again.

*The story of Cleopatra Kambugu is captured in the documentary The Pearl Of Africa. It's a love story beyond catchy headlines. The film is premiering in Amsterdam this week at the IDFA, the worlds most important documentary film festival.

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