/ 26 February 2010

Not safe to come out

Not Safe To Come Out

Kenya’s first same-sex wedding has brought gay rights out of the closet. But many think it needs to get right back inside. Jody Clarke reports from Nairobi

‘Are you looking for the second floor?” the security guard asks. But he already knows what the answer is. Why else would someone drive 15 minutes from the centre of Nairobi to an unmarked warehouse surrounded by spare car-part dealers and junk merchants? I am ushered up four flights of stairs and through a security door. It’s white and featureless and gives no clue as to what is inside.

It’s no spy organisation, no home to international arms traders or drug traffickers. This is the headquarters of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (Galck). And, given recent events, the level of obscurity isn’t all that difficult to fathom.

Two weeks ago Kenya’s first gay wedding provoked mass unrest in the seaside town of Mtwapa. Christian and Muslim leaders united in their opposition, with an angry mob taking to the street under the banner “Operation gays out”. Three people, known to locals as “notorious gays”, had to be rescued by police just outside the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), where services are offered to more than 400 male and female sex workers, including those who are gay. Several people were also arrested, including employees of Kemri.

Poring over the details of this event and others like it, you’d think Solomon Wambua, the head of Galck, would be weighed down with worry. But sitting at his desk, the 28-year-old doesn’t seem overly concerned. Yes, gays still suffer from intimidation and attacks in Kenya. But, in advancing gay rights in the country, these tribulations are inevitable.

Wambua isn’t your typical gay Kenyan. In a country where gays are often forced into sham marriages to avoid public humiliation, he actually came out to his parents. At first they didn’t take it well.

“I asked my mum: if you knew I was gay, would you have paid my school fees? She said no. We didn’t speak for three months. Then slowly she came around. She still can’t tolerate it but now we talk, although about other issues.”

Most aren’t so broadminded. “I hate them,” says one man, leaning out the window of his 10-year-old Toyota Corolla. “It’s no wonder they hide, otherwise they would be beaten. If my son was gay, he would be my enemy for life.” As a Christian, does he not think this is at odds with the tenets of love and understanding inherent in the faith? He shrugs and defiantly flips his palms skywards. “It’s just not in our culture.”

“The whole notion of homosexuality is considered unAfrican,” says Maurice, a 24-year-old gay Kenyan who asked that his surname not be used. He hasn’t come out to his parents; he doesn’t want to risk becoming an outcast. And while there are no openly gay bars in Nairobi, the city is far more tolerant than the rest of the country. “There is one club in town where the balcony is specifically for the gay community. Other nights, such as Sundays, are specifically aimed at gays.”

Flaunting your sexuality is frowned upon here. Gays are regularly beaten and male sex workers are harassed for bribes by council officials, according to Galck. This makes its work quite difficult.

While Kenyan law does not criminalise being gay itself, it does criminalise sexual acts between men. Health information on gay sex cannot be openly distributed; groups would be accused of aiding a felony if they did, leaving many in the community unaware of serious health risks. According to a study by the National Aids Control Council, 35% of gay sex workers did not know that HIV could be transmitted during anal intercourse.

The picture is less bright in neighbouring countries. Three weeks ago a man was arrested in Malawi for hanging gay rights posters in the capital, Blantyre, and Agence France-Presse reported this week that Malawi’s constitutional court refused to hear the case of a gay couple arrested for “gross indecency” after holding the country’s first public same-sex wedding. Meanwhile, the Ugandan parliament is set to debate a controversial anti-homosexuality Bill that proposes the death penalty for men caught having sex with other men. The proposed law has been sharply criticised by the international community, with US President Barack Obama describing it as “odious”.

Still, there are signs of hope, although they are tentative at best. In October two Kenyan men became civil partners in the United Kingdom under the country’s Civil Partnership Act, raising public debate about homosexuality in Kenya. Anti-privacy laws prevent police from entering your house, so that means most of Kenya’s gay community can avoid conviction, as long as they stay out of the public eye.

Says Wambua: “If you don’t dump your trash on someone else’s yard, you can do as you please.”