Most Kenyans don’t tolerate homosexuality. That means major implications for human rights and the spread of HIV

By Elizabeth Daube

Victor risks his life in little ways. It’s not just the subtle eye shadow streaked across his heavy lids, or the rainbow of rubber bracelets decorating his wrists. It’s that he lives in Kenya, and he’s attracted to men – and he refuses to hide or apologize for it.

As a gay man, he’s a target for hatred and possible violence here. According to a global survey released by the Pew Research Center in June, only 8 percent of Kenyans believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. In 2012, a mob stoned a gay man to death in a Nairobi slum; in 2011, a gay rights activist in nearby Uganda was found bludgeoned to death near his home after a tabloid publicized his picture and address.

When I ask Victor why he’s open about his sexual orientation despite the risks, he answers without hesitation.

The community is so, so hostile. They can sometimes even kill you, [but] stigma starts with you … You have to accept the way you are first. We are just human beings.

The public sentiment against homosexuality is still apparent in Kenya’s “unnatural offenses” law, which makes it criminal for a person to have “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.” Similar laws exist in 38 African countries. In Kenya, the crime is punishable by up to 14 years in prison—a light sentence when compared to recent proposals to make homosexual acts punishable by death in Uganda. A 2011 Kenyan Human Rights Commission report found that very few people actually get charged with “unnatural offenses,” but police frequently harass, detain, bribe and assault people who are openly homosexual.

The stigma and threats associated with open homosexuality have led to secretive, often unprotected sex among men. One report estimated that HIV is three times more common among men who have gay sex than it is in the general population. (Although lesbians in Kenya have received much less attention from HIV researchers, they are also subject to violence and harassment. Some have reported being the targets of repeated harassment and rape solely because of their sexual orientation.)

Because of mistreatment at government health facilities, it’s been tough for gay men to seek basic testing and care, according to Thomas Odhiambo, program manager for the Kisumu-based non-profit KASH, or Keeping Alive Societies’ Hope. KASH started working on health education and rights advocacy for gay men in particular a few years ago. In addition to other HIV prevention efforts focused on sex workers, KASH provides trainings with police and public health centers, trying to improve understanding and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Victor volunteers with KASH as a peer educator. He finds other gay men and shares health information with them, in addition to mobilizing them to attend advocacy events and parties that aim to reduce public perception that homosexuality is shameful. Security remains key to the parties’ success.

Felix, a soft-spoken man who volunteers with Victor, said the secrecy surrounding gay sex has often translated to misinformation about how HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases spread. “People think having sex with a man is much safer,” Felix said.

Because of rampant discrimination, sex work is sometimes the only realistic way for openly gay men to make a living here. In turn, unsafe sex can be a routine professional hazard for many gay men in Kenya. Felix is among them.

It’s a challenge for most,” Felix said.  I do sex work. It’s very dangerous … [But] there is nobody willing to employ a gay man.

Although Victor supports himself with a small business, he said that’s not something open homosexuals can typically count on. Worsening matters, many gay men drop out of school to avoid taunting. Others are forced out of their homes by parents who disown them. “Most of us depend on self-employment and NGOs,” Victor said. “Loans would be a big help.”

In recent years, the Kenyan government has started to prioritize the need to reduce HIV transmission among people who are most vulnerable to infection, especially men who have sex with men, or “MSM.” (Many men in the so-called “MSM” group might consider themselves gay or bisexual. Others identify as heterosexual, but enjoy sex with men under specific circumstances. As Victor noted, “It can be a choice in some cases. It’s like in prison.”)

Homosexuality remains taboo here—Odhiambo noted that “most people feel it’s not African to be gay”—but there might be reason for cautious optimism. While only 8 percent of Kenyans reported thinking that homosexuality should be accepted in the 2013 Pew study, that’s more than double the 3 percent estimate from Pew’s 2007 survey.

And KASH isn’t the only organization working to support gay and bisexual men in Western Kenya. KIPE, or the Kenya Initiative for Positive Empowerment, focuses on advancing the health of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the region. When I left Kenya, they were organizing a celebration for the International Day Against Homophobia with partner NGOs.

But progress sometimes feels too slow for those who need immediate help. HIV isn’t the only worry; Victor and Felix both mentioned gay men who suffered from other medical problems.  One nearly died from an infected rectal prolapse. (The walls of the anus fall down and can emerge from the body; the condition is incredibly painful and may require surgery to treat.) Another died from a throat cancer that was likely related to a sexually transmitted infection. He didn’t want to explain the situation to a doctor, or he simply couldn’t find appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Some men try to ignore internal injuries from rape, expecting that the police and hospital workers won’t understand.

“There’s fear,” Victor explained. “We still have a very big gap.”

Victor, left, and Felix volunteer as peer educators with KASH.
Victor, left, and Felix volunteer as peer educators with KASH.
Photo by Algah Adhiambo Balla