By J. Blessol Jr
‘Being queer in Nairobi means you have to man-up - or be a woman and a half - to admit, embrace, and live your life with no regrets,’ writes J. Blessol Jr, in an exploration of both the positive and the many negative aspects of queer life in the city.
‘What your mother hasn’t taught you, the world will.’
What does it mean to be queer in Nairobi?
It means you get to be the odd ones out, outcasts, a minority - prone to so many things - where the community, the media, the state, and everyone around you tries to be in your business. Does this in return make us the recipients of hateful or scornful glances from the ‘righteous’ society, or pure ‘admiration and respect’ from the rest of the population? We don’t care.
We have become a society within a society, and one that dreams big - one that has its own culture, defines its own gender roles, spirituality, and religion. We have organisations that work in solidarity, voluntarism, and that dream our revolution will one day yield the fruits of gay games and parades similar to the ones we see on TV in South Africa. We dream of a new society that can include our brothers and sisters from Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa and probably the whole of Africa, if they are interested.
In our society, we know there are things like human rights, and we know that ours are being grossly violated; but we still manage to live our lives to the fullest. Our activists and volunteers dedicate their lives to fighting ignorance, hate-motivated violence, and inequality by seeking recognition before the law, empowerment, and positive advocacy.
Our happiness comes from the fact that we are being ourselves and not living a lie. We create our own safe spaces, we have queer parties, and we establish queer-friendly joints where we get to relieve our stress, be rowdy, free our minds, and be treated as normal beings. We get to dress as drag-queens and kings, dancing in our own sensual way while we happily watch ‘straight’ people dance to Lady Gaga’s songs, and hum Rihanna’s ‘Te Amo’ without reasoning the meaning behind it. Then we go home to be male-wives and female-husbands, partaking of our roles wholeheartedly, without caring what the other society thinks of us.
That is our outside. Inwardly, being queer in Nairobi means you get to be unique in a different way. Our lives, our livelihoods, and problems are different. From the sub-standard medical treatment we receive when we disclose our sexuality to practitioners, to the way law enforcement treats us, such that unions within the queer community are not entitled to basic rights such as National Social Security Funds and rights to a founded family.
This society’s perception of us is usually negative, and tends to be worse for queer communities from lower socio-economic backgrounds. You would think it would be enough that life punishes them for being financially crippled, but they are often stigmatised, discriminated against, and bashed (even by the police) simply because of their sexuality. The majority believe it is a lifestyle, a choice, a vice that can be changed with proper medical care, divine intervention, and exorcism prayers. They can’t believe that people are queer just because they are. The things the majority does to ‘reform’ queer people usually leave one to wonder whatever happened to the values of humanity.
Being queer has defied the gender roles imposed on us by families and societal expectations - where a man should marry a woman, or several women, or vice-versa. And as a result, many have experienced heinous injustices within broader society.
Most of the time, a verdict is reached on the spot. If you are caught in the act, or even just suspected of being queer, there is no telling what might be done to you. In school cases, students get expelled. If the punishment is minor, and a person promises not to be queer again, he or she may just be suspended.
If you are a diva or a butch lesbian minding your own business on the street, and you find people in a bad mood, you get beaten into a pulp, or raped to rid you of your ‘behaviour’. The excuse is usually, ‘What are you trying to show them?’ or ‘Behave like the gender assigned to you.’. Most of us have been forced to live double lives, hoping that our families don’t find out. Once they find out, you are lucky if they accept you. Then you live hoping that this ‘phase’ will go away, or pretending you are not what you know you are.
In worse cases you get thrown out. They believe what your mother hasn’t taught you, the world will.
For instance, take the case of a 23-year-old gay man. He is proud to be gay, yes, but the suffering and humiliation he has undergone at the hands of society has left him damaged. He would need more than counselling and divine intervention to heal and be himself again.
He grew up in one of the slums in Nairobi. His mother died when he was eight years old. At 17 he was denied education and kicked out of their home after his teachers and family discovered he was gay. They told him he was the child of a whore, and unfit to be part of the family. He was nearly cursed by his then-ailing uncle (who is now dead) - but he went back home, apologised for being gay, said he was no longer doing it, and professed that he had been ‘saved’. All of this so that his uncle could die in peace – whatever that means. As to his family, ever since there has been hear-say. He has never gone back.
He hustles in the streets of Nairobi, normally earning less than 100 Kenyan shillings (about US$1.25) per day. That is what he eats, drinks, and sleeps on. He has been sexually abused by a man at gun point; he submitted to it and never reported the incident. He sleeps in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park when things are out of hand. When things are cool, he can be found in shady downtown joints drinking Keg with other queer friends.
In another case, a 26-year-old gay man was stripped of his dignity by society. He was a sex worker back in the day when the word ‘gay’ was not even uttered in public, let alone now, when the media features it as frequently as TV advertisements, or at least every other week.
This man would stand on the roads waiting for clients alongside the rest of the female sex workers. He would be caught, beaten, sexually harassed, and had his rectum permanently damaged. But on the better days, when he got genuine clients, he made good use of his money. He built his own house in what was at that time his ancestral home, and lived well helping his siblings and relatives, until the day they discovered he was gay. He was frog-marched, beaten, and told never to set foot on that land again.
He is a sex worker. He is HIV-positive. He sleeps in the downtown drinking joints, and sometimes you will find him crying because he feels people use him and pay peanuts in return. Sometimes he earns as little as 30 Kenyan shillings (US$0.37) for the services offered. He is bitter and enraged. He keeps recalling he has a beautiful home he built with his own money and sweat, only he can’t go back to it.
Consider this incident involving a lesbian who was indeed ‘taught by the world.’ She was gang-raped by eight men she had grown up with, trusted, and whose second names and families she knew. Men she considered to be like brothers. She sacrificed herself on this fateful night to protect her girlfriend from being raped by the same guys. The men believed that by doing so, they would ‘rid her’ of her ‘behaviour’ or ‘stop’ her from being a lesbian.
Now she has turned to alcohol for solace. She believes it is the only thing that loves her earnestly, without prejudice. You will find her in the same shady Keg-drinking joints as the others.
This is where I get my insights on where the challenges of being queer in Nairobi come from. And it is a hard existence - especially if you are not well-off and don’t know your way around the system.
First, out of ignorance or personal convictions, society gets to decide what is African or un-African, cultural or un-cultural, natural (with the help of the constitution) or unnatural for us.
Second, politicians, and the gabble they call politics (votes and statistics necessary to secure power), believe that we are the damned minorities of these country. If the majority of society does not ‘condone’ us, then they shove our issues aside. Unless there is a pandemic of course.
Third, African and religious leaders believe queer lives are un-African, Western, un-cultural, unnatural and ungodly, and that anyone who ‘practices’ these ‘heinous’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘beastly’ acts should be cast out. It is sad that in some cases, this has been used to justify why a life should be lost.
These three parties somehow get to decide our fate. And if you don’t know your rights or where you can find assistance…
And even if you do know your rights, will they be applied in cases of mob justice?
As to how to liberate ourselves here and around Africa, my insights are to hope, educate, and fight ignorance within and beyond our communities. These processes are ongoing as queer organisations in Kenya reach out to law enforcement, policy-makers, religious leaders, and African leaders more generally.
I believe the dominant society justifies what it does about us because of its ignorance. After all, that which any human being does not understand, he or she fears. Hence the marginalisation, discrimination, stigma, violence, and hate-motivated speeches we see in the public sphere today. It is very similar to the time when it was wrong to be a black African. Not long ago, Africans were a marginalised group within their own society and on their own lands, an unacceptable situation that led to the beginnings of black liberation movements and later Pan-Africanism.
Being queer in Nairobi means you have to man-up - or be a woman and a half - to admit, embrace, and live your life with no regrets. And when there are regrets (for example because of your jealous partner, or the never-ending sexual endeavours that always land you in trouble or threats from your ex), you have to be ready to bear the consequences.
J. Blessol Jr. is an activist with the Gay Kenya Trust and works as a graphic designer.