Kenya’s Gay Community: From ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to ‘Do Ask, Do Tell’

Change is here.

If you want to see how progressive Kenya is on gay rights, visit Lodwar town in the north. In Lodwar, there is a group of gay men who have come together and formed a group.

That pastoralists -already a minority group and gay nonetheless – could form a group and acquire office space within Lodwar town to operate is indeed progress.

A few years ago I penned an article titled ‘The Quiet Revolution: On the Increased Visibility of Kenya’s Gay Community’ and I thought it best to do a follow-up article to see whether what was there then has endured .

First, let us talk about the media. The graph of how Kenyan media houses and stations report on gay issues has an upward curve. Years ago, pre-World Social Forum and immediately after it, media was identified as one of the hindrances to progress and debate on gay rights.

Sensationalism and poor reporting were characteristic of the various outlets. But then that has changed so much so that, with Kenya’s remarkably free and independent media, the gay community has gone ahead to start their own media house which is by far the only one and one of the largest in Africa.

There was a strong presence of gay and lesbian personalities in the airwaves too, affording an otherwise ‘secretive’ community a face. These days, perusing papers for strictly anti-gay or homophobic or hateful pieces is a job activists no longer do.

Four years ago, it would have been unimaginable that public participation of gay people, at least ‘out’ ones, would be possible. Fast forward to a few months before elections under the new constitutional dispensation and what does my magic orb say? Gays are out there and they are not afraid.

We had the first ever openly gay politician to declare interest in a political office. He joins the other 15 per cent of ‘not open’ gays, lesbians we have in the current parliament who will be seeking re-election next year.

There is debate – most of it negative – on gay political candidature but people have missed the point: It is not winning the gay politicians are after. It is about making a statement.

I remember when the first gay group was formed by a Catholic brother at Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi in 1997. Being the oldest daughter, as they say, the group saw tough times, learnt things the hard way and managed to survive up to now.

Brother Daimo, who started the first group – Ishtar – under the noses of senior Catholic clerics in Nairobi would blush if he saw the now close to 50 regional gay, lesbian and transgender groups we have all over Kenya. Visit any town in Kenya – and if you know where to look – you will not miss a pub, clinic, youth center, church yard, school or social hall – where gays, lesbians are meeting to discuss health, human rights, economic empowerment, etc.

Why, you may ask, do they not meet on ‘gay’ issues? It is because being gay comes second to a decent meal, access to education and eradicating poverty. Yet, these members are all similar – the only thing straight about them is how they take their vodka.

The arts have historically been the ground where murderers, painters, crazies, priests and those who see things differently could come and speak their mind. Art forms like music, painting, singing, theatre are now emerging as ‘safe places’ for any confused gay lad or woman, to ‘come out.’

Poets, singers, musicians, actors are dabbling in homo magic with risk, caution and a sense of ‘this has to be told.’ I have attended karaoke, book clubs, socialite dinners where being openly gay will raise an eyebrow as much as the Pope praying Hail Mary. So many are they that plans are now underway to start an arts academy for them.

A few years ago, I gave a lecture at a local university on the need to bring ‘gay’ back to ‘edu-gay-tion.’ My paper was actually titled, ‘Edu-Gay-Tion’. Scarcely did I know that a year later, we would have two groups – one gay, the other lesbian – for university students.

With hopes of forming fraternities in all campuses, the groups, all students, are in sustained efforts to re-educate their peers on homosexuality. It is the same peers who will be legislators who will have no problem pushing for legal recognition of gays.

That Nairobi is being described as the ‘Gay Mecca or San Francisco’ in Africa (move over South Africa!) is something we are proud of. First, the social scene is simmering with gay patrons, coffee takers, workers, refugees, professionals and clerics. Go to any club these days on a Friday night and tell me that you would not say, after looking at someone, ‘That guy looks gay.’ They are.

More so, gays have teamed up with their close cousins, the sex workers, and they are (Beyonce prophesied), running the town. The collaborative efforts between the gay community and sex workers, civil society, parastatals and professional bodies, is admirable.

Shops and marketing outlets are now catering for a gay clientele. The other day, I was invited to a meeting with the owner of an upmarket, well-known bar in Westlands who asked me if we would welcome Tuesday night at his establishment for gays. He also threw in an open mic once a month.

I know several shops that specifically target a gay, lesbian clientele. Most prominent are the sex businesses that sell sex toys and other pleasure items and X-rated videos. Just ask any of them if they stock gay porn, ‘L’ Word, The A List, Will & Grace and they will answer in the affirmative.

As an activist, nothing speaks progress other than the above and much more. Yet there is still a risk. The cases of ‘corrective rape’ are alarming as is the number of suicides among gay and lesbian Kenyans.

Blackmail and extortion – a recent investigation found that police officers have a cartel targeting gay men – is now a major issue that is being tackled, but at a painstakingly slow pace. The stoning of a suspected gay man in a Nairobi slum, the public humiliation of a transgender woman in Kisumu who worked as a maid, and the forced marriage of a lesbian in Kisumu who later killed herself on finding she was pregnant – all these prove that we are not yet there.

Homophobia is rife in schools as I found out when applying at a Christian university that flatly refused me admission on account of being openly gay. The comments by an Anglican bishop that gays are worse than terrorists show that religion is still playing hard ball. Instead of focusing on spiritual orientation, they are busy focusing on sexual orientation.

With elections coming up, an openly gay politician in rural Central cannot seem to move past the ‘gay’ part of him yet his manifesto is the best there is for his constituents.

There are major advances and there are major obstacles. And major blunders on our part. The community needs to move towards being affirmative and participate more in society. Kenya’s society may not be ready for an openly gay politician but they cannot ignore its queer members are showing their true colors.

And that makes them no less Kenyan out there.

by Denis Nzioka
Source – Identity Kenya