by Chris Kay
Publicly scorned and officially illegal, Kenya’s stigmatised homosexual groups have opened a Nairobi centre that is now driving behind-the-scenes action to change policy and attitudes towards gay rights and HIV/AIDS awareness.
With many Kenyan gays locked into cover-up marriages to hide their sexuality, secrecy itself has led directly to HIV infection in the home. The country’s gay groups are now mobilising in an effort to stop this hidden spread.
Under the banner of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), launched in May 2006, four independent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organisations are now engaging with Kenya’s government to raise gay issues in an effort to counter the spread of AIDS that is being caused by the repression of homosexuality.
The largest of the four groups within GALCK is ISHTAR MSM, a community based organisation with around three hundred active members working on improving HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infection (STI) awareness in the gay community.
GALCK itself is now three years old, but it has only been in the last year that it has secured funding and a full-time centre with four paid members of staff.
The funding followed from the World Social Forum, held in Nairobi in January 2007, when Kenya’s gay organisations “came out in large numbers” and gained public exposure, says David, the GALCK centre manager.
The centre, a large single floor open-plan office, is not openly advertised and is shrouded in secrecy. Although it has an informative website, GALCK does not publish its Nairobi address. David, who declined to give his full name and age, emphasised the importance of this secrecy as “a matter of life and death”.
However, the secrecy of the GALCK centre location has not hidden its activities from the local police, who have been known to bear down hard on Kenya’s homosexuals. “There is no point hiding it from them, but luckily they are always joking about it,” says David.
The maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment for gay sex in Kenya is rarely enforced.
However, the danger of public hostility is real. A 2005 poll in Kenya showed that 96% of respondents felt that homosexuality was an affront to their beliefs.
Along with religious intolerance, Daniel, a gay Kenyan in his late-30s working in the Media and PR industry, feels there is an overwhelming cultural stigma towards homosexuality. “I think African men are brought up with an over exaggerated focus on masculinity. This tends to mean that anything that would portray someone less of a man is frowned upon,” he says.
There is no official census of the number of Kenyan gays, but numerous studies worldwide conclude that statistically one in 10 people are homosexual.
The mismatch between such statistics and public perceptions in Kenya is driving the gay community to be more organised in now raising what is sees as the real issues.
“We have played a close part with some sectors of the government,” says David, naming the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and the National AIDS Control Council among others.
The groups argue there is also now some kind of tacit official acceptance of homosexuality in Kenya. In the past former president Daniel Arap Moi declared that “Kenya has no room for homosexuals and lesbians”.
But David argues that current Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki would not publicly speak out against homosexuality.
Against this backdrop, the most driving issue for the lobbyists is reducing STIs.
David claims that many secretly gay Kenyans are often married with a straight wife, but also have a gay partner, increasing the chance of HIV/AIDs being transmitted and spread across the family.
Many men and women succumb to the social pressure of wedding into a straight union against their sexual inclinations and “are not happy and wish they could turn the clock back,” says David.
“Even now younger people who should know better are going into it…it doesn’t occur as an option not to get married.”
The GALCK coalition is trying to combat the generalised idea that people can choose to be gay and are thus choosing a ‘sinful’ practice. This has been hard through the mainstream media.
“They focus mostly on the idea that all gays are effeminate, which is not true. This column I read last year in The Daily Nation says that homosexuality it is a disorder that results from rejection. Truly hilarious,” says Haiku, a gay 21-year-old student.
Overall, progress is slow, says GALCK. “We are very much an ignored group, many organisations work with us from a distance,” claims Maurice, a 23-year-old GALCK volunteer. “They don’t want to get involved with us publicly.”
Yet most believe that some progress is being made.
As part of its ongoing community work, the centre is now opening a part-time STI centre, visited by a resident doctor twice a week. The centre also offers space for member organisations, a library, HIV/AIDS counselling, computers with internet, as and a TV/Movie space.
“It is easier to be open here,” says Mike, a 22-year-old gay student visiting the GALCK centre, as he says it is “very rare” for any Kenyan to be open about homosexuality in the outside world.
The internet has also opened up debate. Many of Kenya’s outspoken gays have now taken to the blogosphere, helping to debunk the myths associated with homosexuality.
Yet, despite this openness on the internet, some bloggers still emphasise the risks of coming out publicly in Kenya.
“Many gay Kenyans are not open about their sexuality. I for one cannot be open even to my friends because of my profession and also due to the fact that my family's business interests may be threatened,” says Tamaku, a 38-year old blogger, working in PR.
“Kenyans would be surprised to find that work colleagues, husbands, sons, fathers are gay. I have never been threatened but I understand the possibility of blackmail to be very real,” he adds.
Unlike many gay Kenyans, Daniel, also a prolific blogger, is open about his sexuality to his family and believes that living as a homosexual in Nairobi has become easier in the past few years, but concedes that “there was a time when it was really hard”.
“I was blackmailed eight years ago and that’s the reason I came out to my family to avoid being in that situation again. Ten years ago, a friend of mine was set up by the police. Seeing that no Kenyan court will actually convict anyone for being gay, the threat of blackmail is very low today.”
It does happen though, says Tamaku, who recalls an incident where two of his friends were arrested last year after embracing while dancing together in a bar along Tom Mboya Street in central Nairobi.
“The threatened charge was indecency in a public place but it turned out to be a ploy to extort money. They parted with Ksh10,000 in exchange for their freedom,” he says.
Indeed, to some it seems that the main motive for repressing gay Kenyans revolves around money.
“They just want money…if you are an idiot they will suck your money faster than a straw,” argues Haiku.
Yet in the current limbo over the government’s stance and the courts’ enforcement many younger Kenyans genuinely do not believe that homosexuality between men was outlawed.
Among the gay community, this greater tolerance among younger Kenyans has even fed hope that over the next decade liberties and rights for Kenya’s homosexuals will change for the better.
“Kenyans are grasping the concept of universal rights as a result of their obsession with politics. If they are sincere in this pursuit then the battle against these discriminations will be shorter than some imagine,” says Tamaku.
However, it will be an uphill struggle says Haiku. “If they are not tolerating it now what makes you think they will tolerate it in the future? There are a lot of misconceptions” and ingrained attitudes can be hard to change, he claims.
But there is a lot to be positive about says Maurice. “It is just a start, but now we have got a centre and maybe something else will happen.”
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Article published with author's permission.