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I’m an intersex Ugandan – life has never felt more dangerous

My name is Julius Kaggwa and I am 46. I was born in Uganda and raised as a girl called Juliette.

But by 18, my period hadn’t arrived, my voice had broken and I had started to grow facial hair. What I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t suffering from a mysterious disease – I was a normal human with a simple medical condition.

I was born intersex, with both male and female genitalia. I later went through surgery to close my vagina, and I now live in a happy heterosexual marriage.

Intersex is the “i” in LGBTI, and though we stand with the gay community in Uganda, the association has become a double-edged sword for us.

I'm an intersex Ugandan – life has never felt more dangerous
I’m an intersex Ugandan – life has never felt more dangerous

Politically we are considered the same, and we are subject to the same dangers and the same level of harassment. But while the community offers us a place of relative safety, it is also oblivious to our specific needs.

Times have never been harder for LGBTI activists in Uganda. In February last year, President Yoweri Museveni signed a law that not only outlawed homosexual acts, but also compelled citizens to report suspected homosexual activity to the police, triggering increased levels of prejudice, violence and discrimination against the gay community.

This year, a police raid on a gay pride march in August was one of the worst things we’ve experienced for months, and people from our community around the country have been telling us it’s increasingly hard to find a safe space to seek medical or psychological support.

I became an activist after helping a young intersex boy, who was due to appear on the radio to try to raise money to have his breasts surgically removed. He was the first person ever to look at me with eyes that said “you can help me”.

I was concerned for him because people have so many questions. “How many sexual parts do you have,” people ask. “Which one works?” For young people it can be particularly traumatising. You’re taught growing up as an intersex person in Uganda that your body is no longer your property. It is to be abused, examined and tested against your will.

I am now in the public eye and I have no regrets. Yes I feel more exposed, more of a target, but I also have links with activists and groups outside Uganda that I can call if someone threatens me.

I have suffered harassment throughout my life, including from my in-laws from my first marriage. They became very abusive, both verbally and physically. At one point my sister’s husband tried to rape me – it’s curious type of “cure” also inflicted on lesbians to “correct them”.

Ugandans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met, but I blame the hatred we face on the US church groups who have been pushing an agenda against us. They say we are “against God”. Others say that we are being paid by western LGBTI groups to destroy the social fabric of Uganda and corrupt children.

I have always been a staunch Christian but lately it has been a challenge to find acceptance in my own church. I still have allies, but increasingly they say I am treading a “slippery path” by standing up for the gay community.

The church doesn’t have a problem with intersex, nor does the government really, they just don’t understand what it means. They think it’s a disease or a curse. We also don’t have any reliable figures for how many people are intersex, because stigma stops people revealing themselves. Across the country people are misinformed, which is what we need to fight.

We have to educate Ugandans about the realities of intersex in a way that they understand, not using western terminologies and not talking about human rights, a pointless concept in a society where every human is subject to God’s law.

In my organisation, Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development in Uganda, we approach it in a human way. I tell people that I am someone’s son or someone’s nephew, as an entry point to building trust.

We have to go knocking door-to-door to try to find allies who will stand with us. It’s a bottom-up approach to changing hearts and minds, but it’s very scary. Especially now.

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