Story and photo by Erin Carson
Reporting by Erin Carson and Carol Andisi
ELDORET, KENYA — Being gay makes you a criminal in Kenya. The penalty if you are caught is 14 years in prison.
In spite of this, Jasiri lives a semi-openly gay life in Eldoret, Kenya. His family and friends know his sexual orientation and accept him. He doesn’t deny who he is, but in this story, his name has been changed to protect him from the violence, extortion, and stigma gay people face in the conservative African community.
Jasiri and LGBT activists paint a grim picture of what life is like for gay men here. It is too often a life of fear and secrecy, a life shrouding one’s true self. Unlike Jasiri, the majority of gay people cannot be open with those close to them.
The illegality and stigma create a situation ripe for extortion, harassment, and threats from people who threaten to reveal a gay person’s sexual orientation to the community or the police if they don’t give them what they want.
If they come out on their own, or are outed by someone else, they could be disowned by their families, exiled from their communities, fired from their jobs, ostracized from their social circles, subjected to victimization, or violently attacked. The need to hide their gay identity is therefore crucial .
Those who stay closeted must live two lives simultaneously. Many are afraid to seek healthcare or be truthful with service providers because they think they will be preached down to or outed.
Although gay men are one of the groups at highest risk for HIV transmission, outreach to them here in the rural areas, that surround Eldoret. Gays lack access to comprehensive sex education that could save their lives.
Clarise Ojwang, a Psychologist at AMPATH (Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare) works with HIV positive clients, some of whom are gay. She said that the stigma they face for having HIV is compounded by the fact that they are considered outside of the social norm.
“The issues that these people go through are hard enough—then they have HIV in addition. They are being blamed for the continued spread of HIV but there is nothing done to raise awareness among that particular community. They do not exist. They exist here in this department, but they ‘do not exist’ elsewhere,” she said.
Peter Okumu works with two projects supported by AMPATH: KIPE (Kisumu Initiative for Positive Empowerment) and Q-Initiative in Eldoret. Both work to educate the community about LGBT people and issues they face. He said he hopes by creating an open dialogue he can change the views people have of gay people.
Okumu is opening a center in Eldoret to address the specific health needs of the LGBT community. The only one of its kind in the area, he said the resource center will provide programs ranging from counseling services and STI testing to worship services and social activities. Okumu said the overarching goal is to provide a safe space where members of the LGBT community can meet and be themselves without fear.
“We are looking at a forum where people can fellowship, where they can freely open up,” he said.
Okumu said counseling will be incredibly important at this center because “preachy” counselors in other settings don’t actually help people. He said one of the major obstacles gay people face when seeking healthcare is the way they are treated by service providers.
“Before any service provider treats people, they need to go through sensitization. They need to probe with language that is not stigmatizing,” Okumu said.
A source at AMPATH, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss this subject, is doing a study of how men who have sex with men relate to healthcare providers. He found, like Okumu, that clients often lie to care providers because they are uncomfortable talking openly about their sexual practices. He said vulnerable groups are afraid of [care] providers because they don’t know how they will react and they fear for their confidentiality.
“Gays live secret, secret lives. I would compare it to devil worshipers, if they are here— that secret,” he said.
Okumu said gay-centered or gay-friendly counseling can make people comfortable talking to the healthcare provider since it’s clear that the counselor understands their needs.
“I would like to see gay people have access to care. I would like to see gay people walk into any healthcare facility in the country and not be treated different,” he said.
Ojwang said the counselors in her department work to make all clients feel comfortable, but realizes that that is not always the case. “Key populations have been neglected because they are the minority. They are not socially acceptable. Within the continent, we are looking at the African culture, it is a taboo to even mention it (men who have sex with men),” she said.
Beyond the struggles with healthcare are the daily struggles gay people face in the patriarchal, traditional society of Kenya. “The main issue is expressing yourself. How do you express yourself in the community without being harassed?” Jasiri said.
He describes himself as an artist and said he knew from a young age he was different. “I’ve been making my hair since I was small. I’ve been cross-dressing since I was two,” he said.
Although his family is religious and being gay is taboo in his society, he said his family accepts him as he is. “My parents have no issue with it because they have been with me through my struggles. Being open to the people that care for you is important,” he said.
Jasiri said that there is a gay-straight spectrum and that everyone falls somewhere on it. It isn’t black and white—gay or not. He said he accepts himself and his lifestyle now, but that he isn’t “tied to the gay side.” He wants kids and a family someday and doesn’t think that’s possible with a gay partner in Kenya.
While there is a the growing realization in the West that gay couples can raise children together as a family, Jasiri believes there should be a mother and a father in a family. He said that even in the gay community that long-term relationships between men are stigmatized and discouraged.
In Kenyan society there is still the expectation that men are supposed to play male roles. If a man plays the feminine role in a relationship for a long time, Jasiri said people will ask, “How long are you going to be a bottom? Aren’t you a man?”
Jasiri said he plans to marry one day, and that when he does, it will be to a woman, so he can start a family.
AMPATH psychologist Ojwang said the effects of living a closeted life or even a semi-open life in a society that does not accept you can be very detrimental.
“The issue of secrecy is strenuous. Living a double life impacts negatively on a person’s self-esteem because he is not genuine. They cannot talk about it. They have nobody,” she said.
Being closeted here is not just a matter of individual safety in Kenya. Ojwang said it is also about protecting the family. “No family wants to associate with a homosexual. The family also has values. They will be ostracized in the community. Their standing will be diminished. The individual is a component of the family. The family is a component of the community. The shame of an individual is shared with the family,” she said.
Ojwang said in African culture, homosexuality is still abhorred and not understood. Before individuals can feel comfortable being their true selves,, she said the society will have to change and that will be a long battle.
“Change has to come from the community itself. They have their long-standing beliefs. Breaking into those long-standing beliefs requires a major overhaul. It will take generations,” she said.
Samuel Kimani, who runs a resource center for street children and is branching out to work with other marginalized groups, hopes it won’t take that long. “For me, it is about reaching one person at a time. I can’t even say I’m a gay rights activist. I just want people to be more open to gay people. I’m starting with my family and friends,” he said.
He said just like he learned through his work with street children— people are people. He wants society to be more tolerant of people who are different. “Get to know someone before you judge them. They are nice people. If it’s something they do behind closed doors and it’s not affecting me, why should I care?” Kimani said.
He said many people in Kenya are against homosexuality because of religion, but he doesn’t think that should play a part in accepting people. “The biggest commandment is love thy neighbor. The first commandment is love them,” he said.
It is hard to know how common straight allies like Kimani are in Kenya because there is no research and homosexuality is not discussed often. He is hopeful that things will change for the better for the LGBT community, even with neighboring countries like Uganda cracking down more severely.
For change to come on Kenya, many more Samuel Kimanis and Peter Okumus will have to come to the support of people like Jasiri.