- 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 2
(Continued from Part 1)
Story by Erin Carson
Reporting by Erin Carson and Carol Andisi
ELDORET, KENYA — Beyond the struggles with healthcare are the daily struggles gay people face in the patriarchal, traditional society of Kenya. “The main issue is expressing yourself. How do you express yourself in the community without being harassed?” Jasiri said.
He describes himself as an artist and said he knew from a young age he was different. “I’ve been [doing] my hair since I was small. I’ve been cross-dressing since I was two,” he said.
Although his family is religious and being gay is taboo in his society, he said his family accepts him as he is. “My parents have no issue with it because they have been with me through my struggles. Being open to the people that care for you is important,” he said.
Jasiri said that there is a gay-straight spectrum and that everyone falls somewhere on it. He said it isn’t black and white—gay or not. He said he accepts himself and his lifestyle now, but that he isn’t “tied to the gay side.” He wants kids and a family someday and doesn’t think that’s possible with a gay partner in Kenya.
While there is a the growing realization in the West that gay couples can raise children together as a family, Jasiri believes there should be a mother and a father in a family. He said that even in the gay community, long-term relationships between men are stigmatized and discouraged.
In Kenyan society, there is the expectation that men play male roles. If a man plays the feminine role in a relationship for a long time, Jasiri said people will ask, “How long are you going to be a bottom? Aren’t you a man?”
Jasiri said he plans to marry one day, and that when he does, it will be to a woman, so he can start a family.
AMPATH psychologist Ojwang said the effects of living a closeted life, or even a semi-closeted life in a society that does not accept you can be very detrimental.
“The issue of secrecy is strenuous. Living a double life impacts negatively on a person’s self-esteem because he is not genuine. They cannot talk about it. They have nobody,” she said.
Being closeted is not just a matter of individual safety in Kenya. Ojwang said it is also about protecting the family.
“No family wants to associate with a homosexual. The family also has values. They will be ostracized in the community. Their standing will be diminished. The individual is a component of the family. The family is a component of the community. The shame of an individual is shared with the family,” she said.
Ojwang said in African culture, homosexuality is still abhorred and not understood. Before individuals can feel comfortable being their true selves, she said the society will have to change and that will be a long battle.
“Change has to come from the community itself. They have their long-standing beliefs. Breaking into those long-standing beliefs requires a major overhaul. It will take generations,” she said.
Samuel Kimani, who runs a resource center for street children and is branching out to work with other marginalized groups, hopes it won’t take that long. “For me, it is about reaching one person at a time. I can’t even say I’m a gay rights activist. I just want people to be more open to gay people. I’m starting with my family and friends,” he said.
He said just like he learned through his work with street children— people are people. He wants society to be more tolerant of people who are different. “Get to know someone before you judge them. They are nice people. If it’s something they do behind closed doors and it’s not affecting me, why should I care?” Kimani said.
He said many people in Kenya are against homosexuality because of religion, but he doesn’t think that should play a part in accepting people. “The biggest commandment is love thy neighbor. The first commandment is love them,” he said.
It is hard to know how common straight allies like Kimani are in Kenya because there is no research, and homosexuality is not discussed often. He is hopeful that things will change for the better for the LGBT community, even with neighboring countries like Uganda cracking down more severely.
For change to come in Kenya, there will have to be many more Samuel Kimanis and Peter Okumus.