By Cynthia Vukets // Photos by Steve Bull
NAIROBI—It’s not the best time to be gay in East Africa.
In Uganda, a controversial private member’s bill is proposing the death penalty for homosexuality.
And in Kenya recently, gangs whipped into a homophobic frenzy by religious leaders set fire to an HIV clinic and severely beat several gay men during widespread protests. Similar gangs are also known for raping suspected lesbians. To “turn” the girls back straight. So far there’s no scientific evidence that the strategy works.
But many gay Kenyans are now living in fear.
“For us activists, it’s become very scary,” says Pouline Kimani, a human rights advocate and founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK).
Kimani, who says she’s been out since she was 11 years old, is a rare figure in East Africa. She’s chatting with me in a downtown Nairobi café, with gay rights literature spread out over the table. She sports multiple facial piercings and a sexy short haircut, and I have on several occasions seen her getting fairly up close and personal with hot chicks at local clubs. She’s in about the top 0.0001 percentile of courage in this society, though. Most gay and lesbian Africans are forced to live in the closet because of social stigma and the fear of violence.
Many marry and have children so they can “pass” in mainstream society, GALCK director David Kuria explains. He’s another one of the outspoken leaders in this community. But when I ask him if he is in a heterosexual relationship to hide his identity, too, he prefers not to answer.
For Charles Ngengi and Daniel Gichia, leading double lives is unthinkable. The two both left Kenya, saying they preferred the UK as a place “to live our lives based on love rather than hatred or fear.”
The couple and celebrated their civil union in London last October. They’d kept their partnership secret from their families back home, because homosexuality is still illegal in Kenya.
But in the days after the ceremony, journalists from several Kenyan media houses visited the rural home of Gichia’s parents and “outed” their adult son.
“For sure the media has gone beyond the limits, in an outright attempt to increasingly scandalize the situation, by going directly to our parents in order to try and gather more details from them,” the couple wrote in an email. “Quite simply, our parents, family and friends have absolutely nothing to do with our private lives as we are both well over the legally stated age of ‘consenting adults’ and have not lived with our parents for many years.”
But for some gay activists, all the attention is a good thing. Because at least people are talking.
“Whether good or bad, publicity is publicity,” says Peter. He’s the director of Ishtar – a support group for men who have sex with men. He didn’t want to use his last name, fearing for his and his family’s safety. “What we really want at the moment is recognition that gay people exist in Kenya.”
And the situation in Uganda has brought international press and political attention to gay rights throughout the region.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both recently spoke out against Uganda’s proposed bill, with the US President calling it “odious.”
All the attention has forced Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to distance himself from the bill and seems to have prompted some increasingly desperate tactics on the ground.
A Kampala pastor apparently tried to further stoke the fires of indignation amongst his followers by bringing gay porn into his church in February. A planned demonstration in Kampala had been shut down by police, so his alternative was a late-night meeting at his church. He apparently had prepared a slide show of graphic gay porn to really drive the point home that gay people are gross and should be executed. Seems simple enough. Not.
“It’s forcing a lot of people back into the closet. Not that there were a lot of people out of the closet but there was a lot of safe space,” Kimani says of the intense media reaction to Gichia and Ngengi’s civil union. And then there’s the risk of being labelled a “shoga” (loose Swahili translation of “faggot”), pulled into the streets and beaten.
Demonstrations seeming to piggyback on the commotion next door in Uganda have been organized in Kenya’s coastal cities. It is difficult for the queer community to speak out against propaganda and homophobia because of the danger the legal status of homosexuality entails. (In an interesting loophole, lesbianism is not technically against the criminal code so Kenyan police have begun inventing charges in order to hold several lesbian couples they’ve arrested. Allegedly, I mean. Because Kenyan police would never just invent charges. Right?)
But whether or not Kenyans agree that sexual minorities deserve basic legal and social rights, at least people are beginning to talk.
“This in itself is great, because every Kenyan now knows that people of the same sex can fall in love and marry,” says Kuria.