Kenyan Gay Activist Visits San Francisco

by Heather Cassell
Saturday Jul 12, 2014

Uganda and Nigeria have garnered much global attention due to the countries' anti-LGBT laws, but little notice has been paid to other countries that have, or are proposing, similar laws, such as Kenya.

Currently in Kenya, being gay can lead to a sentence of up to 14 years in prison if caught.

In March, Kenyan Member of Parliament Irungu Kang'ata proposed that parliament conduct an investigation into the alleged "non-enforcement" of anti-gay laws by Kenyan officials, reported LGBT blog 76 Crimes.

The website also reported that Kang'ata was forming an anti-homosexual caucus in parliament to push for more anti-LGBT legislation. In February, Kang'ata called upon police to uphold current anti-gay laws or he warned that citizens would have to enforce the law by arresting alleged LGBT people.

Due to the hostile environment being fomented by anti-gay lawmakers back home, an LGBT activist from the northern part of Kenya agreed to speak with the Bay Area Reporter while visiting San Francisco last month as long as the paper did not use his real name and the name of an LGBT rights organization that he started.

To protect his safety, the 31-year-old gay man asked that he only be referred to as Ken.

He said he doesn't believe that Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta supports anti-gay legislation. He also noted that parliament's conversations about anti-gay laws have dropped down the priority list for discussion among members of parliament.

He suspects that Kenyatta's stance, and the hushed nature of anti-gay legislation in parliament, is due to recent U.S. sanctions against Uganda with threats for similar sanctions to hit Nigeria and other countries that pass similar anti-gay bills.

Kenya's LGBT community is getting stronger, said Ken, and he believes it will be able to fight anti-gay legislation if parliament brings it to the table again. But it won't be an easy fight, he warned.

The problem, said Ken, lies with the religious leaders and voters that manipulate and threaten elected officials in parliament, and even the president, by voting them out of office. Then there's the question of oil. African countries are discovering oil, which will make them less dependent upon Western nations for financial aid, he said.

A guest of the American Jewish World Services, Ken toured the U.S. June 15-30 and was hosted locally by the organization's Global Circle Bay Area division. This was his first trip to America, and he stopped in New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in addition to the Bay Area to talk about being gay in Kenya and the state of LGBT rights in the East African country.

More than 35 people listened intently to Ken's story about being an LGBT activist in rural Kenya during his brief visit to San Francisco June 25.

"I'm here also for education and to let people know that the amount of attention that this bill put on Uganda puts (LGBT Africans) more at risk," he said. "We have countries like Ethiopia and Somalia who are at the highest risk. They have no one who is helping them or talking about (similar legislation to Uganda and Nigeria that have been introduced.) Everybody is in Uganda."

Ken's Story

Born and raised in Northern Kenya, an arid desert land on the edge of the Sudanese border affected by severe drought and tribal wars, Ken said it is already a difficult part of the world to live in, but even harder for LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Often times LGBT people will cut themselves or go through rituals to cleanse and rid themselves of their same-sex attractions, he said, or take medicines to cure them because society views being gay as bad as being disabled. Many believe that parents who have a child who is disabled or gay, he added, is due to their not paying a proper dowry for marriage.

The middle child in a family of nine sons and two daughters, Ken still lives in his village with his family. He was brought up believing being gay was bad and could land him in prison.

Ken's savior was a priest who encouraged parents to send him and other children to school to train to be translators for him and other missionaries. Ken began to learn English, but when the community chased the priest away from the village because children weren't out in the fields and raiding other communities, he and the others had to find another way to finish school.

He and a friend in his class ran away, staying with friends, family and neighbors as they worked to finish their primary education. Ken became attracted to his friend, who shared the same feelings, but Ken's friend urged him not to talk about it for fear of being killed or going to jail, he said.

"This friend of mine was forced to go through (the ritual process mentioned above) because there was so much pressure in his family to marry," Ken said. "After the same process, he left school because he was so traumatized he became mad. Up to now I speak, he is mad."

"Every time I am in our village I feel a lot of pain," continued Ken. "Every time I meet him he cannot even talk or recognize you."

Rather than go through the same ritual, Ken wanted to take medicine to help him be attracted to women like other boys, but there was no such miracle medicine to be had. Instead, he completed his primary education and moved to a larger town.

When he arrived the first story he heard about gay people was about a gay couple that committed suicide because the community wanted to kill them. He was scared. He knew that it was very possible, because in his years as an activist and growing up in his region of Kenya, he had witnessed people being stoned to death and activists taken to prison never to be seen again for being gay.

Lesbians suffer so-called "corrective rape," said Ken, and trans people "go through hell."

"This is what a gay person goes through in my culture," said Ken. "So, what made me want to form a group? I did not want to come up with an organization. For me, I wanted medicine (to) help me change and be like other boys, be attracted to women, have family, have children. That's what I wanted."

In his search for a cure to change him, Ken stumbled upon an opportunity to become a translator for a representative for an environmental project funded by AJWS. The representative and he connected, but instead of getting medicine he got his life's work as the AJWS staffer told him, "I want to empower you to advocate for people like you."

That is how Ken became an LGBT activist nine years ago.

Fighting for LGBT Rights

Since then through community education, his group has helped a gay man once expelled from his community be welcomed back by community members.

"We wanted the community to realize that what they were doing was not right. It is the community that we would one day ask for our rights," said Ken, about opening the community discussion about the old man after discovering that he was expelled because he was gay. "Lucky enough, now as I speak, he is living in the community. He is very old, but at least his last days on earth are like happy days compared to how he lived."

Today, Ken creates programs in schools teaching human rights, works with LGBT refugees in the refugee camps, and is beginning to document LGBT Kenyan stories along with two other local members of his group.

At the schools his program frames LGBT rights as a human rights issue and encourages students to form human rights clubs. In one school of 300 students, an estimated 60 students have joined the club and they are taking the message home to their families.

The project has been successful, said Ken. In a unique twist of fate students at the school where the program was tested halted the expulsion of three gay students from their own school for being gay. When the principal called the police, the students rioted, he said. It wasn't an action that he supported, but he realized the impact for change that was occurring.

This year, Ken expects to expand the project to a girl's school.

In order to document the LGBT movement and community in Kenya, Ken has been collecting LGBT Kenyan's stories as part of his work.

One of the most challenging projects he works on, said Ken, is with LGBT and HIV-positive refugees in the camps where they escape to if they don't go to Nairobi.

There are many LGBT people escaping Uganda and neighboring countries. Ken estimates there are about 104 LGBT refugees in the camps where he advocates for the rights of LGBT people and people living with HIV.

The number of LGBT people in the camps has surprised him. He was able to gather 24 to talk about their issues.

Many HIV-positive people - gay and straight - perish in the camps, said Ken, because they can't get proper nutrition or medicines. They contracted the virus, he said, from having sex with Kenyan police or people who took them in and took advantage of them when they were living on the streets as children.

In addition to advocating for LGBT refugees and for HIV-positive people in the camps, Ken's group uses pooled resources to buy healthier food for them. Life in the camps can be particularly rough for HIV-positive refugees whose visa applications get delayed at least a year once their status is discovered. The wait, said Ken, can cause them to get sicker and lead them to be disqualified in the process.

"While in Ethiopia and Somalia LGBT people are running to the camps because the situation is hard. They are going through very terrible situations," he said.

During his talk in San Francisco, Ken urged the audience to support Senator Edward J. Markey's (D-Mass.) International Human Rights Act of 2014. Introduced last month, the legislation would require the Secretary of State to name a special envoy for the human rights of LGBT peoples.

Ken also asked that the international community keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament for any possible anti-LGBT legislation or clauses attached to other bills, such as anti-terrorism bills, and pressure the Kenyan government to support LGBT human rights.

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