Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day where we come together to mourn and remember those who have been murdered and are continually persecuted and abused in our societies. This year alone 22 trans* people have been murdered in the United States and countless others have been battered, bruised, and assaulted on a daily basis.
Nikilas Mawanda, a transgender feminist activist from Uganda, recalls how growing up he knew he was “different from an early age,” but “just did not know the word transgender.” He remembers how there were many myths about how one could cure, change one’s gender, or prevent puberty from setting in. Nikilas tells of how he would stare at the sun for hours in hopes that his genitals would change or how he would beat himself with a specific stick in hopes that he would not develop breasts.
Nikilas remembers the first time he heard the term “transgender.” A friend had left Uganda returned, excited to tell Nikilas that he had finally discovered a word that described exactly what they were thinking and feeling about themselves. This label became powerful for Nikilas, but he knew there were others out there struggling with the same things. So, in 2007 he started a non-profit called Trans Support Initiative Uganda. Here Nikilas hoped to help protect and educate those affected by the stigma surrounding being transgender in Uganda. On December 23rd 2013, Uganda passed the Anti Homosexuality Bill. This bill made the LGBT community illegal citizens and labeled them as criminals. On Feb 24th 2014, the president of Uganda signed this bill into law.
In 2014, while coming back from a trip, Nikilas was arrested because he did not look like the picture on his passport. His passport was confiscated until he could prove he was not gay. It finally took a doctor from California, whom he had never met, writing a letter to the Ugandan government saying that Nikilas had a life threatening genetic condition and that he needed to come to the states for treatment.
Nikilas left Uganda with only 3 outfits and a pair of shoes to his name. He left behind his family and friends and everything he over owned to seek asylum in the United States. He left his true treasure – his son – back in Uganda. He hopes very soon to have enough money to bring is son here to the United States so they can be reunited again.
When asked what Transgender Day of Remembrance means to him he said, “It makes me think about the violence, how it is not safe for my people to walk the streets or be with their families. This day is not celebrated because it is fun; it’s about pain, excruciating pain, that those in the trans* community feel everyday.” It reminds him of the activists who were severely beaten and left for dead in Uganda these last few weeks. “Being here and knowing what is going on is not easy. It’s hard and heart breaking for me because not everyone can get out like I could, people there still struggle to be who they are everyday.”
Nikilas expresses that he hates telling his story to people. He feels as though people hear his story, feel badly, and yet don’t do anything with this information. When asked what his message would be for the Church.. “Do Something! We are your children, your family in Christ, and we are crying out for your love. Open your arms wide to us, love us.” Nikilas states that, “many trans* people have told me the Church has turned them away that the Church is no longer the place many trans people look to for help and guidance.”
How can the Church transform this pain into hope? How can we show God’s children the unconditional love of God? How do we listen to Nikilas’ story, and other stories like his, to compel us to keep moving forward so to end the violence against trans* people, left as after thoughts on the evening news. What will his story compel you, me, us, the Church to do?
Sarah Louise Cobb is a second-year student at . Originally from the Memphis area, Sarah is seeking ordination as a Deacon in The United Methodist Church. As part of her field education, she is interning at MFSA.
Nikilas Mawanda is the Founding Director of Trans Support Initiative—Uganda, a transgender and gender non-conforming people’s organization in Uganda. He has served the Ugandan LGBT community for more than 12 years. During his career, he has played key roles in organizing LGBTI people in Uganda through organizations like Freedom and Roam Uganda; Transgender, Intersex and Transsexuals Uganda; and The Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. Nikilas was a preacher for Gather at the River in August 2015.