Intersex bodies are abused, studied, tested and “corrected”
Julius Kaggwa is an intersex and trans activist in Uganda. He directs the organization “Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development” (SIPD Uganda), which seeks to sustainably change the attitudes toward intersex people. Born in the Kibuye part of Kampala in Uganda, he is a practicing Christian raising four children together with his wife.
Julius Kaggwa’s activism began with a news report in 2002. “I was listening to Ugandan news and there was a story about an intersex boy whom the evangelical press in Uganda had been humiliating and persecuting. That really struck me, and I immediately decided to help him,” he explains. He faced down his fears and told his own story for the first time to a live audience on national TV – for the sake of the boy and others like him. “When I finished, everyone in the room stood up and applauded,” he recalls. The behavior of the TV host triggered the realization that he could do something to change societal attitudes toward non-normative bodies and sexual identities, and that he could help create an environment more accepting of people like himself.
“I define myself as an intersex man who went through a trans experience,” says Kaggwa. “In our culture, intersexuality is seen as a curse that you have to get rid of. Some families hide the child in a house, or throw it into a latrine. Often the babies are even killed. Sometimes their genitals are mutilated in an attempt to ’normalize’ them.” Kaggwa himself was subjected to traumatic traditional “normalization” procedures both in childhood and afterwards. Although his parents were confused about his condition, they kept it secret in order to keep danger at bay. They were very protective and supporting, he says, until their deaths in the early 1990s.
Kaggwa’s coming-out was a “very frightening and traumatic public nightmare”, he says. “I outed myself to two close friends at our church who were members of my prayer group. Those friends told the media in 1996 about my coming-out. Later attempts to re-integrate me into the social life of the church failed because of the vengeful restrictions and conditions I was subject to.” Kaggwa notes that his friends at school and church displayed a wide range of reactions. “Some were understanding, but most were very closed, judgmental and prejudiced.”
Ostracism of intersex people in Uganda
Today Kaggwa is the CEO of the organization “Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development” (SIPD Uganda), which seeks long-term change in attitudes toward intersex and non-binary (gender non-conforming) people. “Growing up as an intersex person in Uganda, you are taught that your own body no longer belongs to you. It is abused, investigated, tested and ‘corrected’ against your will,” he says. Gender reassignment operations are legal in Uganda for people under 21 if a physician performs a thorough examination and attests that the gender assigned at birth is not the dominant one based on cytogenetic data and a psychological evaluation. After their 21st birthday, intersex people are no longer allowed to have this type of medical procedure. Qualified medical specialists are not available anyway, according to Kaggwa. “The law is extremely binary with respect to how it recognizes and accords rights. This means intersex people are excluded from all kinds of social, economic and political programs, and nearly every action that an intersex person takes to shape and participate in societal life can be reframed as illegal in the eyes of a governing body or community influencer.” The SIPD organization counters this with the vision of a world in which individuals are valued above and beyond reigning notions of gender dichotomies and the associated oppression and violence.
Kaggwa’s work at SIPD focuses on raising awareness, on educating the public, and on enabling and mobilizing allies and partners to achieve long-term societal change. “Our work builds largely on local strategic partnerships, and seeks not only to educate the public but also to develop allies’ abilities to more clearly understand the special rights and health-related concerns of intersex children.” SIPD therefore joins forces with the Ugandan Human Rights Commission to improve the situation for intersex people. Together with the Human Rights Committee at the Ugandan parliament, it succeeded in having intersex persons included in the 2015 Registration of Persons Act. It also focuses on providing objective information to young people and on dispelling some of the myths surrounding intersexuality. In eastern Africa, a high level of superstition can be attached to differences, and intersex children are often viewed as the product of witchcraft or sorcery which subjects them to considerable stigmatization and discrimination – including infanticide, ostracism from social and family life, and exclusion from healthcare, employment and education. A third focus of SIPD’s work consists of building and strengthening capacities by means of discussions with regional activists and allies, in order to expand the reach of intersex people’s voices on a regional level.
Working beyond borders
“Our work concentrates on combatting the discrimination and killing of intersex children, on preventing violations of basic human rights in general, and on upholding the right to bodily integrity,” says Kaggwa. SIPD focuses above all on the right to life, on the freedoms of expression, identity, and association, on freedom from torture, on access to basic medical care as well as reproductive healthcare and information, and on the right to legal recourse. SIPD also promotes the rights of intersex people beyond the borders of Uganda, for example by working with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. “We maintain close ties with numerous organizations such as the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU), World Vision Uganda, Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP), MEMPHROW (Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women), Straight Talk Uganda (STF), as well as with various hospitals and physicians in Kenya to increase access to human rights-based healthcare for intersex people in Uganda,” says Kaggwa. SIPD’s fields of action overlap with those of nearly all its allies – especially activists for the rights of children, women, LGBT, people with HIV, and disabled people.
Kaggwa’s advocacy for intersex rights makes him vulnerable to attack. “What I really can’t stand is the constant level of extreme fear and anxiety every time I’m out in public, which is unfortunately what most of my work consists of,” he remarks. “I’ve faced traumatic experiences like physical assault in an attempt to ‘correct’ my identity, and warnings against integrating religion into my activism.” But these experiences have failed to stop him. For many years he was also active in opposing Uganda’s law against homosexuality, and received the human rights award from Human Rights First in 2010 for his efforts. “That gave me the courage to work even harder for the recognition and protection of all LGBTIQ+ people in Uganda and the region.” A milestone event for him in his country was the repeal of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. “Even though we’re still trying to overcome the bitter consequences of that law, the fact that the court revoked it gave our community a second chance to reorganize and renew its struggle,” says Kaggwa with evident passion. He fears the enactment of another specifically anti-LGBTIQ+ law. “A law on sex crimes recently came into effect. It’s an ominous development for my community, because we’ve already seen a witch hunt with multiple arrests including torture of LGBTIQ people during the lockdown,” he says. And then adds: “Implementing this law will lead to the death of many LGBTIQ people in my country.”
Wishes for the future
Julius Kaggwa therefore wants to have his country decriminalize different sexual and gender identities. But in addition to decriminalization, what’s needed is for attitudes and mentalities in Ugandan society to change. “Because even if there are laws, it’s the leaders of society – and often not the courts – who control the punishments and rewards, which means the ways justice is actually practiced.” It’s crucial to stop the statements that incite hate or crimes against the LGBTIQ+ community, he notes. Donor partners can encourage this by having their investments promote sustainable capacity-building. The aim is to train young intersex leaders, to fund interventions in the community, and to pursue programmatic work that can increase personal safety and improve access to healthcare. “Otherwise it will be impossible to build and maintain a strong intersex or LGBTIQ movement on the continent,” says Kaggwa.
One of Kaggwa’s wishes for the future has already come true. His work has helped foster a generation of young activists who are now doing “incredible advocacy” in a number of African countries. “My other wish is to deal with the fear and burnout that have built up and even increased with the rising level of threats,” he says. Staying healthy, or for that matter remaining alive, is a basic condition for continuing to use his expertise and experience and for building on the successes achieved thus far. “My wish is for security and for a certain reconciliation, so I can concentrate on my family and continue to be a pioneer for the LGBTIQ movement in Africa and beyond.”
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