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The Pearl of Africa

Fighting prejudice in Uganda: the transgender woman who defied `the world's worst place to be gay`

The documentary The Pearl of Africa portrays the life of 28-year-old transgender Ugandan Cleopatra Kambugu. She was biologically born a man, but already in her early years begins wearing female clothes and identifying as a woman. She found the support of her lifelong partner and mother and, against all odds, lived a relatively hassle free life in her home country. Until the local tabloid Red Pepper decide to “denounce” and “gay-shame” her, forcing Cleopatra into hiding.

The film then follows her footsteps as she flies to Thailand for a sex-reassignment surgery. This is the most powerful and intimate part of the film, which captures the moment she woke up from surgery as well as her first steps towards recovery. After the painful intervention, she moves with her partner to Kenya, where she now fights to return to her home nation and to be recognised as the first transsexual woman in the country’s history.

Homosexuality is a taboo in Uganda, to say the least. The country actively and consistently persecutes LGBTI people. In countries such as China there is often tacit acceptance and complicity as long as the homosexual marries a partner of the opposite sex and lives a dual life. Such possibility does not seem to exist in Uganda, where the mere suspicion of homosexuality is often a trigger for social convulsion.

Five years ago, British radio and TV presenter Scott Mills traveled to Uganda for the BBC documentary The World’s Worst Place to be Gay, where he talks to locals and politicians about their views of homosexuality without revealing that he is gay. At the end of the film, he interviews the legislator who proposed a new Draconian law punishing not just homosexuals but also those who “harboured” them. Halfway through the interview, Mills suddenly reveals that he is gay, immediately fleeing to airport and leaving the country in fear of persecution.

There are many homophobic countries in the world, particularly in Africa and Asia. However, many of them are more accepting of transgender and transsexual people. Such is the case in Iran, where the government even pays for sex-assignment surgery. In Albania, some women are encouraged to live as transsexuals (find out more by clicking here). Uganda, however, is so deeply prejudiced that they do not even bother to make the distinction. To most people in the country, LGBTI people are all “gay” and do not deserve a place in society. Many believe that they shouldn’t even be allowed to live.

The arguments against homosexuality and prominent in the first half of the movie. Local figures and politicians argue that LGBTI people should not be entitled human rights because they are “human wrongs”, that homosexuality is rather a personal choice and a sexual “disorientation”. Some quote the Old Testament of the Bible in order to support their claims. Others argue that homosexuality can be “learned” and “unlearned”.

Prejudice is always rooted in ignorance, it seems. Firstly, in the Red Pepper’s failure to distinguish between gender dysphoria (when the individual does not identify with their birth gender, such as in the case of Cleopatra) and homosexuality. Secondly, in the misguided belief that homosexuality is a personal choice. They also seem to think that it is a byproduct of toxic international influence, and not something inherent to humans.

Swedish director Jonny Von Wallström crafted a bold and touching picture of a truly unparalleled personal story of love and fight against prejudice. It will serve as inspiration for LGBTI people living in the 79 countries that still criminalise homosexuality. On the other hand, the film relies too heavily on music in order to achieve dramatism and the result is sometimes a little bit stagy and artificial.

The Pearl of Africa will premiere at the next Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival later this month in Toronto. The film is currently seeking distributors in many countries across the world – for more information, just click here here. The film trailer is viewable below:

By Petra von Kant - 14-04-2016

Petra von Kant is a filmmaker, critic and performance artist. She was born Manoel Almeida to Brazilian parents in 1971 in Bremen, Germany. Her parents were political refugees fleeing the military dict...

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