President Barack Obama is widely expected by Kenyans to speak up for gay rights during his speech to the nation on Sunday.
That expectation has unleashed weeks of vitriolic comments on social media and protest marches warning him against bringing his “gay agenda” and “Western ideology” to Kenya. At one point the so-called Republican Liberty Party vowed to hold a thousands-strong naked march in the city center to show Obama the difference between a man and woman. (The protest was postponed.)
The furor over the mere possibility Obama could pipe in is a reminder to gays and lesbians here that despite growing awareness, many Kenyans are still not comfortable with their existence.
Even as the leading gay rights organization enjoys its newly acquired status as a legally registered NGO after a landmark court ruling, harassment, family rejection, evictions, school expulsions, and firings remain common – more so when gay issues are in the spotlight, like now.
So while they hope Obama will speak up, gays and lesbians are also bracing themselves for the backlash that could follow his advocacy.
“Right now there is a lot of visibility and talk of homosexuality. When that happens, there is a spike in violence,” says Anthony Oluoch, executive director of the media and advocacy group Gay Kenya Trust. “Visibility is a double-edged sword.”
A few dozen gathered in a secluded corner of a city park on Sunday to catch up, play sports, listen to music, and maybe hold hands with significant others. It was rowdy and lighthearted and belied the discomfort many of them feel in their homes, schools, and jobs.
But as the sun set and they prepared to head home, organizer Immah Reid warned them to be cautious in the coming week.
"It’s a very agitated space right now,” she told the Monitor earlier in the week. “The whole political issue on Obama is overshadowing the main issue: gay people are not safe in Kenya. The look [you get on the streets] is ‘We are talking about you.’”
For all the apprehension, there’s also an eagerness to bring the topic out into the open, to make homosexuals seem less strange to straight Kenyans and eventually gain their support.
“I’m glad people are talking about it, that they’re not in denial,” says a young woman who asked not to be named because of her government job. “As long as we are talking about it, I think we are making strides.”
Although it’s not a crime to be gay in Kenya “homosexual acts” are still criminalized and gays and lesbians have little to stand on if they want to challenge a landlord’s decision to kick them out of their apartment, for example.
While Mozambique’s decriminalization of homosexuality last month was a hopeful moment, more so even the US Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide, there is across-the-board agreement that Kenya is years away from that milestone. Simple legal protection is desperately needed. Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect Mozambique's decision.
The judiciary ruling that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission couldn’t be denied registration with the NGO board has given them confidence to bring their issues further out into the open.
“Conversations are increasing in spaces we’ve never had conversations before,” says Eric Gitari, director of the commission.
“People are treading softly, but people are treading,” says Kevin Mwachiro, the author of “Invisible,” a collection of stories from gays and lesbians from all over Kenya. “The fact that people are talking about the gay issue… You cannot deny that homosexuality exists now.”
‘Our New York’
Maybe Nairobi, at least, is ready for the conversation.
For many gays and lesbians, the city of 3 million is a place of liberation, at least compared to the smaller towns and villages that many hail from. A young Muslim woman from coastal Kenya says Nairobi is her “New York.”
“I can walk hand in hand with my girlfriend if she’s masculine looking. There’s a degree of freedom for me,” she says. “The city can turn on you, but on a normal day everybody is just trying to get through the day.”
There are bars where they know they’ll find a friendly crowd – although they won’t say which, for fear of making them targets. Public transportation can be tense, but in some neighborhoods they don’t get a second glance.
“There are places we can hold hands,” says Kelly Njokah, an administrator at a clinic focused on the health needs of gay men. “We’re comfortable,” interjects his friend Macland Njagi, a nurse at the clinic.
Coming to Nairobi also allows them to hide that side of their life from their families, perhaps allowing them to keep receiving tuition money for university or come home for the holidays.
Nairobi also offers a growing number of safe spaces and support networks as more and more people become comfortable with being out.
“I’m walking a lot taller,” says says Mwachiro, the author. “People are coming out a lot younger. There is a community. There is a movement.”
The community makes Nairobi feel a lot less anonymous and those rejected by their families feel less alone. Last Christmas about 30 of them who were unwanted at their families’ tables got together for a Christmas barbecue, Reid says, and gatherings like last weeks are a regular occurrence.
In the week leading to Obama’s visit, President Uhuru Kenyatta waved away a question on whether the issue would come up.
“That is a non-issue to the people of this country, and it is definitely not on our agenda at all … Poverty, improved health for our people, better education, better roads, better security: these are our key focuses," he said at a press conference.
On this, the gay community and Mr. Kenyatta can agree. Activists argue that politicians, aided by church leaders, are focusing attention on them to distract Kenyans from the country’s real problems.
Kenya has suffered a series of high-profile Al Shabab attacks that were bungled by the security services. Corruption scandals pop up constantly. Young men and women can’t get jobs.
Gay or straight, all Kenyans suffer from these issues, says Oluoch.
“I was close to Westgate when that happened. I lost friends at Westgate. I have experienced the insecurity,” he says, referring to the 2013 Al Shabab attack at a high-end Nairobi shopping mall.
“We are part of society. We face discrimination and violence, but we are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, we are Kenyan.”