- Posted September 25, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The Africa we don't see
Marginalized LGBT Community Struggles to Find a Place in Kenyan Society: Part 1
Story 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 intimidation 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. This makes the need to hide their gay identity 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 in rural areas, like those that surround Eldoret, is minimal or nonexistent. Gay people lack access to comprehensive sex education that could save their lives.
Clarise Ojwang, a Psychologist at AMPATH (a healthcare program in Kenya) works with HIV positive clients, some of who 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 the LGBT groups 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. Because it is the only one of its kind in the area, the resource center will have to address a number of needs, 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 there needs to be gay-centered or gay-friendly counseling so people can feel comfortable talking to the healthcare provider and know that the person 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.
(Continue to Part 2)