Out in Kenya: Encountering Friends Like Us

By Jesus Ramirez-Valles
From Gay and Lesbian Review
May-June 2009

“Are you married?” That was the first question coming from one of the men seated next to me. I immediately assumed he was curious about same-sex marriage in the United States. I replied that I was not, but had a male partner and a son adopted by him. People in this part of Sub-Saharan Africa have some access to the Internet and young “gay” men visit websites where they are learning what is like to be homosexual in Western societies. Young gay men here are aware of the legalization of homosexual unions, and its related debates, in Europe and the U.S.

Another young man in the circle created by about a dozen young gay men asked me what differences I saw between Kenya and the U.S. Affluence, of course, is a pretty evident (and immoral) contrast between the two countries. A third man solicited advice on how to tell parents about one’s homosexual orientation and how to persuade others that being gay is not evil.

After I had introduced myself, I invited the group to ask questions about me before I started with my own inquiry. Their queries reminded me of those I have encountered among young gay men in the U.S., Mexico, Chile, and Cuba. Being gay, or homosexual, in Kisumu, Kenya, however, presents other striking disparities.

We were sitting around in plastic colored chairs and under a torn green tent which was protecting us from the late morning sun. At the center of our circle there were two semi empty cases of sodas. We were in the backyard of the offices of an organization for people living with HIV and AIDS. The organization uses the outdoor space for social support groups and other gatherings.

Although our senses (or at least mine) were fighting with the noise and the heat of the mid-afternoon sun, we all were engaged talking about what is like to be gay man in Kisumu. A few feet from us a couple of workers were building a large chicken coop. Then, on the adjacent property, there were a few loose, loud chickens. And farther behind us down the hill lay the shanty homes where many of these men in the group, and others I’d meet later, live.

The guys’ worn-out shoes and sandals quickly caught my eye. I could see their leathery, callous feet. Faded black, brown, and white feet. Their clothing was worn (but clean), except for three men who looked dressier than the others. One had a ‘Madonna cowboy’ look: all in black, cowboy boots and hat, and a silver-color large necklace. Another was wearing newer and polished shoes, black pants, a creamy shirt, and a small black hat. The third one was all in grey, pants and shirt, black pointy sandals, and round specs. His name was Ernest and spoke in a soft and slow voice. Ernest was carrying a bag, from which he later would pull a book and write with a blue pen. Soon after I would learn that he was a college student in the large university outside Kisumu. That day he had come to town to check out a book from the local library.

In the midst of our group conversation, an unexpected visitor showed up. He was a Dutch man in his forties who had lived in Kisumu some years ago and now is involved in the International Lesbian and Gay Association. He introduced himself, sat with us, and listened. He was thrilled to see so many gay men gathered. During his years in Kisumu, he never met a single gay person (something I still cannot comprehend). In those days, he was in the process of coming to terms with his own homosexuality. Now visiting, he was eager to support the group and link it to others in Nairobi and around the world.

I had come to Kenya primarily as a researcher interested in the prevention of HIV and AIDS. As a gay man, I was also curious about the expression of male homosexual desires in a non-western society. I had arrived vigilant of my social and cultural status: a middle class, Mexican-born and raised, educated foreigner from a wealthy country. I was aware then, as I am now, that my ‘western eyes’ would filter my interactions with the locals, just by the fact that I was looking for a group of people referred to as “gay” or “homo” men, distinct from the majority of the population. Still, my intention was not, and it is not now, to impose judgment on the young men of Kisumu. Even my use of the word gay in this context does not imply it has the same meaning as in the U.S.

The Lou tribe, a minority Kenyan group, calls Kisumu its home. Kisumu is an urban center in the western most part of the country. The poverty is pretty visible through the large slums bordering the city center. Many people rely on bicycles (some of them are used as taxis, called “boda-boda”) or the public transportation, which is mainly comprised of small and decrepit vans, to get around. The majority walk from one place or town to another. There is not a single traffic light and I recall seeing only one stop sign and it was upside down. There is one small affluent neighborhood where the business people (mostly of Indian descent) and most of the foreigners live in residential compounds. I stayed in one of those.

Most of the men I met were Lou, young (between the ages of 16 to 27), and very poor. They live in one or two-room homes made of corrugated metal. The large majority did no go beyond high school and lack formal employment or a steady income. They live day by day, not knowing where tomorrow’s meal will come from. A few of them attend college or work in low-paid jobs.

The idea of homosexuality, specifically male homosexuality, among the Lou people is not so different from the views held in many western societies. Generally, same sex desire is considered abnormal; a deviation from the traditional Christian-based gender roles. In Kenya, as among the Lou people, the sexes, whether humans or animals, are not interchangeable. Homosexual men are thought of as feminine and playing a woman’s role. They are transgressing gender roles. For example, a man who likes receptive anal sex (e.g., bottom) is said to play the woman or the ‘lady’ role. A homosexual man is seen as weak and overtly concerned with his appearance. He takes care of his hair, has his nails manicured, looks clean, and even might wear some fancy clothes, like a blazer or a leather coat.

There is some truth behind these beliefs. One night, we were out at a popular pub (there are no gay bars here) when I spotted two young men playing pool. They both stood out from the rest of the male clientele. They wore sport coats, polished shoes, and their hair was neatly combed and shiny. One of my informants, a gay man, told me he knew them, but they would be afraid of approaching us in this public setting and being labeled homosexual men.

It is next to impossible to find words in the local language to name male homosexuality that do not convey negative connotations. The term ‘gay’ in English is gaining popularity, but is not common yet. Some of the offensive terms include antilog, shoga, and mwere (in Swahili). Shoga is particularly popular to identify a man who performs receptive anal sex. The expression “Ja ngoth pier chuoî” is also used in reference to ‘a man who fucks buttocks’. The young gay men I met do not identify themselves publicly as gay or homosexual. They utilize the words gay or homo to refer to themselves when they are around other men like themselves.

Many men first hear of homosexuality through neighbors’ rumors, which are fueled by the dominant Christian values and sordid sensationalism. As children, they would hear people gossiping about older homosexual men: “they lure kids into sex.” Homosexual men are “un-holy”, I heard a woman saying. Consequently, young men who desire other men often fear being expelled from their homes and isolated by the community and the tribe. Nairobi and Mombasa are perceived as a little more tolerant of homosexual behavior than Kisumu.

However, there are some elements in their culture that allow men to hide their homosexuality to some extent. It is customary for non-gay men to hold hands in public and even to live together. Still, there’s good reason to stay in the closet. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and carries a penalty of fourteen years in jail. Although rarely if ever enforced, this law’s mere existence suffices to instill fear.

Male sex trade for clients of both sexes is fairly common in Kisumu and frequently attributed to foreign influence. For example, one night club displays photos of the go-go-dancers (about fifteen males and fifteen females) of both sexes are displayed in large frames. Women sex workers dance and hang out in the bar and outside, while the men focus on dancing. The clientele in this bar consists mostly of men.

The young men of Kisumu enjoy anal sex over oral sex. Indeed, they dislike performing oral sex on other men, as the penis is thought to be dirty. Indeed I found no language to refer to oral sex. Not surprising, masturbation is fairly common, though somewhat stigmatized.

HIV and AIDS have also become an intrinsic part the young men’s lives and sexual relationships. All locals, regardless of sexual orientation, have been touched by the disease. All of them know someone living with HIV or someone who’s died of it. And some of them are living with HIV and in antiretroviral treatment.

Condom use among gay men is, at best, inconsistent. Paradoxically, the success of antiretroviral therapies (which are available in Kisumu) has somewhat diminished the fear of HIV. Many men in Kisumu say that “sex with condoms is not sweet.” Others opt to trust that their partners are HIV-negative and monogamous. A gay couple in their twenties said they do not use condoms because they trust that the other is faithful and HIV-negative. Incidentally, this young couple has been together for almost two years. They spend the weekends together but still live with their parents. One of them has his own bedroom in a separate room in the back of his family’s house, which provides the space for them to be together during the nights. The partner has to come in and out while everybody is asleep.

The young gay men of Kisumu live under very difficult material conditions and in fear of their families and tribe finding out their most intimate desires. They risk, survive, and succumb to HIV and AIDS every day. They create romantic and sexual relationships and a small (underground) community. Their wide white smiles are at once joyful and defiant.