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Stella Nyanzi: In memoriam for my intersex son

Grace was born intersex, with both male and female sexual characteristics — a variation from traditional gender norms that his parents tried to correct through surgery. After a life as a Ugandan soldier and then as a prisoner, he died of Covid-19 last year in Luzira Women’s Prison. He is remembered fondly by Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan activist, author, researcher and mother.

Stella Nyanzi (Photo courtesy of The Independent)

In commemoration of Intersex Awareness Day (Oct. 26), Nyanzi wrote a Facebook post about Grace, whom she came to know while she herself was imprisoned at the Luzira prison for her rowdy opposition to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Grace was there for shooting and killing an uncle who stole hard-earned money Grace had transmitted regularly from war-torn Somalia to build a house.

This is Nyanzi’s memorial to Grace:

By Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi after a protest at Makerere University. (Photo courtesy of the Daily Monitor)

During my second imprisonment, I made firm friendship with Grace. Grace called me Mama Stella. I called Grace my son. Yes, he was among my few sons locked up inside Luzira Women Prison.

Grace led the women prisoner’s football team. Grace played football better than most men. Grace cut prisoners’ hair for small fees. Grace enjoyed rearing goats on the prison grounds. Grace climbed and cut down big trees with a machete. Grace mended broken radios and clocks. And Grace made love with women prisoners.

Prudish prison administration changed Grace from ward to ward because of accusations of making love with women prisoners. We always laughed about it.

You see, Grace had confided in me about being born intersex. As a child, Grace’s family forcefully subjected Grace to painful surgery that chopped off penis-like protrusions where there was also a vaginal orifice. Yet as a teenager Grace never got any menstruation. Throughout life, Grace only had sex with women. And while serving in the UPDF military service, Grace served mainly as a male soldier whose womanness was concealed by the mandatory uniform and tasks.

This year, I learnt from a recently released prisoner that Grace my son died in prison during the early tough days of the Covid-19 lockdown. May Grace rest well!

Hopefully, the prison services in Uganda will one day recognise and provide for third-gender people. Why lock up an intersex person with either male or female prisoners? Even the prisons cannot handle the disruption caused by blindness to alternative genders!

Nyanzi wrote a poem about Grace that was included in the latest edition of T.A.N.J. (The Against Nature Journal). She added on Facebook:

Grace wanted the world to know about these forced surgeries that parents force on their intersex children. We had planned to hold information seminars where Grace would tell this story but, alas, it was not to be.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location of a photo of Stella Nyanzi as Luzira Women’s Prison).