Reporting from the ground in Nairobi, Sian Norris speaks to LGBTIQ activists fighting for visibility in a country where homosexuality remains criminalised
“It looks like we have repealed the homosexuality laws on Kenyan TikTok,” laughs Alvin, sipping a ginger and lemon juice in a central Nairobi café staffed by deaf people. The 26-year-old writer and activist campaigns for sexual and reproductive rights in the east African country.
“The support that people who identify as queer are receiving on TikTok is mind-blowing, it’s unbelievable," Alvin says. “There used to be a lot of fear. Now the young people are out there, speaking out about their issues, showing off their skills and talent. When I think about the LGBTIQ community, I see a lot of hope.”
Same-sex activity between two men remains criminalised in Kenya, with a 2019 ruling upholding the laws that date back to British colonialism. Echoing that colonialist era, women are not specifically mentioned in the laws (sexual activity between women was never criminalised in the UK).
The law does refer to ‘persons’, however, which some argue could include women, and LGBTIQ people are not specifically protected in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution. The LGBTIQ community experiences stigma and discrimination and can struggle to access healthcare.
But, despite the barriers, the LGBTIQ community in Kenya is, as Alvin describes, becoming increasingly visible and confident, using social media to build communities while tackling prejudice and hate.
“The young people we have now are very progressive,” says Alvin. “In how we think about each other, how we work together, and how we relate to one another.”
In another branch of the same café, not far from the United Nations building in Nairobi, 41-year-old trans activist Arya Jeipea Karijo agrees. She has faced a long and hard road to transitioning and accepting her true self.
“When I started to realise I was trans, I didn’t even have a word to describe it,” she admits. “It took me 10 years to get to the world ‘transgender’. Now, young people have all this information online and on social media. They are challenging everything.
"They see this British law and they are saying 'this is wrong, why do we have it?' They are visible and saying that it’s not us who shouldn’t be here, it’s the laws that shouldn’t be here.”
While both Arya and Alvin are optimistic about increasing visibility and open conversations about sexual rights, horror and tragedy haunts Kenya’s LGBTIQ community. In April, the non-binary lesbian Sheila Lumumba was raped and murdered, with a suspect finally charged in July. The violent death of this 25-year-old was a stark reminder that homophobia still poses a real danger.
Their death followed the murder of Joash Mosoti, a gay man who was killed in Mombasa last year, and of an intersex woman, Rose Mbesa, in Trans Nzoia County, 380 kilometres northwest of Nairobi.
LGBTIQ organisations in Kenya have called on the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) Kenya to ensure there is progress in all of these murder cases. The community also faces the threat of conversion therapy and so-called corrective rape – when lesbians are raped by men to ‘turn’ them heterosexual.
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One of the boldest acts of queer visibility took place two days after Byline Times’ conversation with Alvin, in one of Kenya’s beautiful coastal resorts.
Non-binary activist Marylize Biubwa tied the knot with Arya in a ‘lesbian wedding’ intended as a political message about LGBTIQ rights by queering social rituals and narratives. The ceremony has no legal status, same-sex marriage is not recognised in Kenya.
Dressed in a shimmering lehenga, with her rainbow braids piled on her head, Arya beamed at Marylize, who sported rainbow eye make-up and a white waistcoat over white trousers.
“We are all human,” the officiator said, as the pair held hands on the beach. “It is not your fault that religion has broken your perception of true love. That your cultural traditions have made you unkind, that you insist your way is the only correct way. You are envious of how people can love their same sex and gender.”
Chatting in a Nairobi hotel bar over coffee the day before she travelled to the coast for the wedding, Marylize explained why it was an important act of protest and visibility.
“When it comes to LGBTIQ rights, the Government and wider society invalidates our rights to things like weddings and marriages,” they said. “The reason we want to do this wedding is to challenge the perspectives of people and to challenge the notion of what marriage is all about.”
Part of this, they feel, is about the way society frames unconditional and romantic love. “We say love is unconditional and we live in a society that puts a lot of emphasis on unconditional love. But we are demanding that if you are a woman, you must feel romantic love towards men.”
Beyond the beach wedding, and the LGBTIQ community continues to face challenges in Kenya that go beyond criminalisation – with both Arya and Marylize experiencing direct discrimination from loved ones, as well as from healthcare professionals and other state institutions.
Access to healthcare remains a key issue for the trans community in particular. Trans people often cannot easily access hormone treatments, leading to some taking risks with their health.
Lesbian women and non-binary people also face discrimination when it comes to accessing healthcare. Marylize described to Byline Times their frightening experience of being assaulted by a male doctor when they told him about their lesbian identity during a routine appointment.
“As someone who has survived rape, I felt so triggered,” Marylize explained. “I couldn’t shake the feeling I had been violated. Healthcare is not women-centred and it’s not queer-centred.”
One of the main battlegrounds now facing the LGBTIQ community in Kenya and the east Africa region is over comprehensive sex education, a cause which Alvin is passionate about. His work has taken him around Kenya, talking to young people about these issues. “The sessions explore everything from friendship and health, to sex and sexuality,” he said.
But doing so is controversial, as the recent row over a new bill being discussed by the East Africa Legislative Assembly has proven.
The Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare Bill, introduced by South Sudanese Assembly Member Ayason Mukulia Kennedy aims to “promote and provide for age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health information and services of all persons, including adolescents and young people”. It also seeks to eliminate unsafe abortion and promote responsible sexual behaviour.
The bill and Kennedy himself have faced attacks from CitizenGO – a Spanish-based organisation that has set up a regional branch in Kenya run by Ann Kioko. Launching petitions to block the bill and to recall Kennedy from the East Africa Legislative Assembly, it claims the proposals “promote anal and oral sex” and “promote sexual pleasure and promiscuity as a right for children”.
“The information we offer young people is age appropriate,” Alvin said. “We teach about respect and when to recognise that something is a bad touch or causing harm. These organisations that oppose sex education take everything out of context.”
“One of the key things these anti-gender groups do is spread misinformation,” added Alvin, including in the petitions against the EAC SRH Bill. “This is a progressive bill but CitizenGO relabel it as the abortion and sexualisation bill."
This was not the first time CitizenGO had tried such tactics.
When the Kenyan politician Millie Odhiambo tried to introduce a bill that supported couples to access IVF, CitizenGO called it the “baby manufacturing bill”. A failed Reproductive Healthcare bill proposed by Senator Susan Kihika in 2019 was condemned as trying to “legalise abortion through the back door”. It in fact allowed for abortion in cases of emergency; if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the life or health of the mother; and in cases of severe or fatal foetal anomaly.
Misinformation can lead to hate, Alvin suggests, pointing to the online abuse directed at the LGBTIQ community and its advocates in Kenya. He tries to be hopeful but he knows there’s a long way to go before equality is achieved.
“I want to be hopeful it won’t be that long,” he said. “But when you see the influence of the church, of the programmes they have, particularly around conversion therapy, and the work of opposition groups, they are trying to brainwash people.”
CitizenGO did not respond to a request for comment.
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