He kept it a secret, until he could not keep quiet any more. Eunice Rukundo writes about a man who was brought up as a woman until he stood his ground
He is not your ultimate tight abs guy with a firm behind and muscular arms, but Julius Kaggwa is in all essence, a man. A notch too chubby maybe, slightly below average height and a bit too rounded but he is still not the least masculine man you have come across.
For the first 17 years of his life however, Kaggwa, 39, lived as a female and is in fact referred to as Gayaza High School’s only ‘Old Boy’. Registered there as Juliet Kaggwa, he did his O’ Levels between 1984 and 1987, sleeping in Hutchinson House.
“When I first came out with the truth about my gender, some of my OGs admitted they’d at one time found me weird. One even said she’d suspected I could have been male but banished the thought instantly,” he reveals.
At the time, he was 17 at Makerere High school, a mixed school where he had relocated for his A levels. “We’d been praying with one OG of mine who was still at Gayaza when I’d blurted out ‘You know I’m not exactly a girl’. That was the first time I’d ever said it out loud and it felt good, light on my shoulders, to have let out the secret without fearing I was going to die,” recounts Kaggwa.
Kaggwa had first noticed ‘she’ was different from the other girls in Primary Six in Natale Primary School in Kyaggwe, when she followed them up the hill to perform girl rituals commonly known as ‘visiting the bush’ among the Baganda. “It was when the girls took off their panties that I realised they didn’t look like me.”
Where she had a vagina with a penis protruding at its base through which she urinated, the other girls only had a vagina.
“I had only been in boarding school that year. I think mum had taken me there to protect me from possible gossip from the slummy neighbourhood in Ndeeba where we lived,” he says. At home, the fourth born with two brothers and three sisters, Juliet had been brought up to be secretive about her nakedness, never visiting relatives or playing about naked like other children for fear of being found out and stigmatised. Now for the first time, she thought she knew why, but it seemed too complicated for a 10 year old to comprehend. She became more guarded and withdrawn, awaiting her mother’s next weekly visit to inquire about why she was different.
“First she told me we were all different but I insisted I had been the only one among all the other girls like me.” Left with no choice, Aida Kaggwa must have realised then that she couldn’t protect her child from the truth much longer. Then would be when she admited to her daughter that indeed she was different, per the circumstances of her birth.
Born both a girl and a boy
When her baby was born and Ms Kaggwa inquired after its sex, the midwives looked at each other and said nothing. They just whispered in bewilderment. When she saw her baby, she understood why. The baby was neither boy nor girl. It was both. Ms Kaggwa was both religious and a traditionalist. Her first instinct however was that this was witchcraft. At the shrine, she was told it was no mistake that her baby was born ambiguous, she was in fact a special child chosen to serve the spirits when the time was right. In the meantime, they were to concentrate on bringing her up as a girl or it would die since the responsible spirit was female, the great grandmother’s.
While his father, loving and gentle with his strange daughter, was a fleeting image in his life because of his business that took him far from home most of the time, his mother was around and seemed to have dedicated her life to keeping him comfortable, alive and as normal as possible.
“She got me herbs which were to keep me feminine, talked to nurses in school who helped keep my secret from other people when I joined boarding school in P.6 and changed my schools too often for anyone to realise I was different.”
Until the incident at the hill, the burden of his identity crisis had only been incurred by his mother. As puberty hormones set in though and ‘she’ started to experience the effects of this difference. He started to understand that his difference wasn’t as minor as his mother tried to make him believe.
“I believed her when she said everything would be fine but I started to struggle with more differences internally especially when I joined Gayaza. The usual girl chirping for instance irritated me. I always felt like doing more vigorous non-feminine things like escaping from school and I felt myself involuntarily responding to girls’ nakedness in a confusing way,” he says.
He developed breasts but along with them hair on his legs. “I felt more male than female inside. Puberty was a very confusing and difficult phase for me,” he says. To keep his confusion in check, Kaggwa started to add hormonal pills to a much bigger collection of herbal medicine by now, which he bathed, steamed herself in and drunk, under the school nurses’ protection. Bathing was a challenge; when he didn’t bathe long after bathing hours, he missed it altogether and got in trouble for it sometimes.
He would have wanted to let go and be whatever he felt but for the warning that he would die if not brought up as a girl. He took refuge in the school chapel instead, preaching, singing and praying that he would one day wake up a normal girl. When he found himself developing funny feelings for his choir mates too, Kaggwa knew he wouldn’t survive much longer in Gayaza and therefore went to a mixed day school for A’ Level.
There he meditated on his life seriously for the first time and knew he didn’t want to live in fear and hiding forever. “I wanted to be whatever but freely like everyone else. Blurting out my secret was like testing the waters. It worked wonders.”
Kaggwa never looked back after that first confession. In no time he had sought counsellors who explained what was happening and linked him to medical personnel. He discovered his problem was more biological than spiritual and could have in fact been treated much earlier. It took a lot of psychological and physical treatment but by 2000, Juliet was Julius, with proper male genitalia and no breasts.
His parents had both passed on by then. On her death bed, his mother begged him to stay far away from this land. “There’s a belief, spirits don’t follow one beyond the oceans. She believed I would be safer away now that she wasn’t around to protect me,” he explains.
Julius was scared for a while too and kept away in South Africa, Nairobi and other countries but later decided enough was enough. God must have preserved him for a purpose, most likely to help others like him be free. Today, married with two children, Julius’ life story is published in a book he wrote in 1997, Juliet to Julius. He has started up the Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development (SIPD), and even appeared on Betty Tibaleka’s The Unstold Story show on UBC, to encourage others like him out there to speak out and be helped.
It’s many years since he was a young man trapped in a girl’s image but no one shades 17 years of their life that easily. Julius still has to consciously hold himself back from responding whenever anyone calls out Juliet in his hearing and he admits the no bathing habit also stuck to a significant extent.
Kaggwa was born with an intersex condition
What most parents, like Julius Kaggwa’s, would instinctively blame on witchcraft is medically referred to as an intersex condition, biologically explained as the unusual development of physical sex characteristics.
Kaggwa’s condition was evident at birth due to the abnormality in the external genitals. There are incidences however where the abnormality is with the internal reproductive organs, sex chromosomes, or sex-related hormones. Dr E.B. Mwesiga, a gynecologist consultant at City Hospital says that in this case, the condition becomes apparent later in life around puberty when one lacks or has something extra.
“I sit in a taxi sometimes and see someone I’m almost sure is an intersex case even if they may not know. Muscular bearded women with deep male voices, men with breasts and hips and the like,” says Kaggwa.
Many intersex conditions discovered late in life are associated with infertility and sexuality issues. www.apa.org, an American Psychological Association website explains that delayed or absent signs of puberty may be the first indication that an intersex condition exists; a hairy girl who doesn’t menstruate for instance, and develops more masculine than feminine features around puberty, or a boy who among others develops breasts.
“There are drugs, disease and environment conditions that could result in development of these features though so it is not necessarily always an intersex condition when a man develops breasts or a woman beards. Their genetic constitution has to be determined first to confirm,” warns Dr Mwesiga.
Intersex cases are otherwise also most likely to display gender-atypical behaviours or interests; for instance some forms of intersexuality in the females will result into girls being tomboys.
Sexually, www.apa.org says, although most intersex persons grow up to be heterosexual, some specific intersex conditions seem to have an increased likelihood of growing up to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual adults.
Kaggwa says unsuspected incidences like infertility, intolerance of sex by a female because it hurts among women could be due to existence of an intersex condition. “If her reproductive system inside is male, it means she has no vaginal canal or functioning ovaries hence infertility and obviously painful sex because the penis has no where to penetrate to,” reasons Kaggwa.
According to Dr Mwesiga, the basis for allocating gender, while it may be due to raring or physical composition, should be according to the chromosome composition. He explains that gender determining genes are XY and if one’s composition contains a Y, they are male and if they lack it, then they are female.
“These could however get distorted during development in the womb resulting into gender ambiguity,” he says. Kaggwa for instance had XXY composition, which means although he was male the extra X resulted into female hormonal production and feature formation.
Unfortunately, the lack of information about intersex conditions makes it more unbearable in a country like Uganda.
“The standard solution among the most women is that a child that is born like I was is killed or dumped because it is attributed to witch craft or bad omen,” says Kaggwa. He tells of a woman with a three month old daughter with ambiguous genitalia whose mother has looked for ways of disposing her off but only been held back by motherly love.
“It is a bad omen I know and I have tried to leave her on the road or bush but I can’t take the thought of her being eaten by a wild animal or car crashing her,” lamented the mother as she begged Kaggwa to take the baby because she was a bad omen for her family and would be killed.
Intersex conditions are correctable
With surgery, the physical abnormalities are corrected, even as early as at birth. The hormonal imbalances that will make a man bear breasts for instance can also be corrected with hormonal therapy.
From experience however, Kaggwa says in cases when this correction comes later in life, it also takes a lot of psychological treatment to heal the trauma of leaving with the confusion and stigma of being intersex.
He tells another story of a boy here in Uganda who was dumped at his uncle’s place by the mother as a baby because he was born intersex and was only discovered recently, now undergoing treatment. “He will be a normal boy now but the trauma he has gone through will leave its mark,” regrets Kaggwa. When his uncle couldn’t look after him anymore because of poverty, he published his condition in the media hoping to make money out of his condition. 16 years old now, he had dropped out of school in P.6 to escape his school mates’ taunts about his condition.
“He got help through the same publicity but it was late; he had become a sort of attraction for the locals who paid to see him and we don’t know how to get him back to school now,” explains Kaggwa.
What if the condition is not corrected?
With the inadequacy of the information on intersexuality, there are definitely many people that don’t get treatment especially those with the subtler forms.
Even when one can take the discomfort of the effects like infertility and identity ambiguity after puberty, lack of treatment poses health issues. “The tests had found that I had an ovary much as I had testes. It was first left inside because the doctors thought it would be harmless. I had to have it removed recently however because it had started to become infected and could have gotten cancerous,” says Kaggwa.
Where to get help in Uganda
Support Initiative for People with atypical sex Development (SIPD) located in Rubaga-Wakaliga provides support for intersex people with counselling, information, and referrals for medical and other social support. SIPD has established support networks with doctors at International Hospital in Kampala, at Kampala Family Clinic and at CoRSU rehabilitation hospital in Entebbe. “We are working to widen medical and psychosocial support all over the country,” says Kaggwa, Director, SIPD.
Contact SIPD on firstname.lastname@example.org. P.O Box 16618 Wandegeya. Uganda