Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Nairobi's Gay Rights Revolution

Africa Kenya Nairobi Couples
by Abby Higgins Jun 22, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

ONE BUS RIDE AND I HAD LEFT BEHIND the crowded streets of downtown Nairobi, arriving on the outskirts of the city. The omnipresent buzz and whine of traffic was gone, replaced by the call of birds and the occasional whoosh of a passing car.

I leaned up against a cement building painted neon green and pink, advertising mobile phone providers and laundry detergent. It sprang up from the surrounding dusty landscape littered with acacia trees. A young Kenyan man walked toward me wearing a t-shirt with an orange hoodie over it and jeans that were slightly flared and torn at the knee.

“Gabriel?” I said. The man smiled and stuck out his hand.

Gabriel and I walked to a building across the street and entered a cavernous, unlit room. The walls were stark and cement; the only furnishings were a desk, two chairs, and a banner that read Other Sheep Kenya. I introduced myself to the slim man slouched in one of the chairs in the corner of the room. He looked hesitant, but after I gave my name he was quick to smile and tell me that his name was Peter.

It had taken Gabriel a moment to close and padlock the iron grill placed over the front door, and after finishing he hurried over to us. He repeated the introduction. “This is Peter, my boyfriend.”

Something flashed across Peter’s face; I couldn’t tell exactly what it was. He stole a glance in my direction, trying to read my face, as I tried to read his.

* * *
Gabriel and Peter were staying at a safe house provided by Other Sheep Kenya, one of a growing number of organizations in Kenya working to further gay rights.

Gabriel grew up in Nairobi and has known as long as he can remember that he was gay. Living in the capital city gave him access to gay rights organizations, and he has been involved in activism since he was a teenager. Peter, meanwhile, comes from outside of Kajiado, a rural area in southern Kenya, and he didn’t know that gay rights organizations existed until his recent move to Nairobi.

Over the course of a decade, the fight for gay rights and the presence of gay culture have become visible in Nairobi at a speed perhaps incomparable to anywhere else in the world. Only 15 years ago, no Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) organizations operated openly in Kenya. Accordingly, gay rights were seldom discussed publicly or privately.

In 2012, just over a decade later, 14 different LGBT organizations are registered as part of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALK), an umbrella organization and the face of gay rights activism in Nairobi. The organizations and their goals are diverse: they include Minority Women in Action, an organization that deals with lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex women, with over 70 members; Transgender Education and Advocacy, which deals with the rights of transgender and intersex individuals; and Ishtar MSM, the oldest group in the coalition, which was formed in 1997 and deals primarily with male sex workers and has 130 registered members. These organizations all operate publicly, organize frequent events, and are led by openly gay and outspoken activists who appear often on television and in newspapers.

Over the course of a decade, the fight for gay rights and the presence of gay culture have become visible In Nairobi at a speed perhaps incomparable to anywhere else in the world.

In October of last year, Nairobi hosted East Africa’s first gay film festival, a two-day event featuring movies about gay rights in Nairobi, in Africa, and throughout the world. Festival attendance was so high that people were turned away at the door. For almost a year now, the online Identity Magazine has focused solely on news, issues, and individuals relevant to Kenya’s LGBT community. The editor, Denis Nzioka, recently campaigned to be the president of Kenya. Shockingly, he was not the only openly gay activist to run for public office: David Kuria ran for the Kiambu County Senate seat the following year.

Reception to their campaigns was tepid at best, met with death threats from extreme conservatives and skepticism from the gay community. It did, however, launch gay rights into the public consciousness, with columnists, TV personalities and average citizens discussing their campaigns and likelihood of winning. Career politicians also entered the debate, which seems to cycle in and out of the Kenyan news. They have both dropped out since but continue public careers as gay rights advocates.

Amazingly, all of this occurs in a country where homosexuality has been illegal for over 100 years, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. There are around 80 countries worldwide that outlaw homosexuality, and over half of those countries do so as a result of “sodomy laws,” leftovers from British colonial law. Like many of its laws, Kenya’s legislation criminalizing homosexuality hasn’t changed since the country was colonized.

Because the legal system was forced on Kenya during colonization, it often doesn’t function in the way it’s supposed to. Rather, it only applies for those who don’t have the money to get around it. The wealthy will get abortions, buy alcohol after curfew, and sleep with people of the same sex without fear of retribution even though all of these activities are illegal. For Kenyans who have the money to circumvent it, the written law is irrelevant.

The laws dictating homosexuality are rarely enforced, and when they are it is almost always against those without economic and social power. Even for poor gay men, however, the biggest threat is usually not the court system, but the informal law: mob justice, gang violence, police brutality, and corruption.

Last year, discussions of gay rights played a prominent role in the nomination proceedings for Kenya’s new chief justice. Dr. Willy Mutunga, the nominee, was responsible for the public registration of a gay rights organization, Kenya Gay, and has been an outspoken advocate of gay rights. He also wears a diamond stud in one ear, which has caused more than one Kenyan eyebrow to raise. Nancy Baraza, who was nominated to be deputy chief justice, did her doctoral research at Kenyatta University on homosexuality and the law.

Initially, both of these facts caused an uproar among politicians and the public, but eventually both nominations were confirmed and endorsed by both the president and the prime minister, a remarkable step in a still conservative nation.

Despite the diversity of the groups represented and the sophistication of the movement, being gay in Nairobi is still primarily associated with gay men. As with many burgeoning gay rights movements, gay women as well as gender non-conforming individuals are not as well represented or as often discussed publicly.

I found it much easier to find and contact gay men than gay women, who are often pushed underground by an intense societal pressure to stay closeted. Gay women are also less likely to be outed, as two women living together, eating together, or sharing a bed is less noticeable and more socially acceptable than two men doing the same.

Thus, despite the diversity of the LGBT community, Kenyan men remain its public face, and the group that enjoys the most attention and freedom to engage in activism and development of a visible culture. When most Kenyans refer to “gay people” or “gay rights” it is in reference to gay men.

Even gay men are very far from being able to live in Nairobi openly and without fear, but the rate at which things are changing and evolving is astonishing. A gay rights revolution is sweeping Nairobi and its outcome could have repercussions for the rest of the country and the rest of the continent.

* * *
Peter was quieter than Gabriel, with a tendency to gaze blankly out the window while we talked, speaking only when I deliberately pulled him into the conversation. He struck me as painfully aware of himself, noticing each time my gaze drifted over to him.

When he did begin to talk Peter began his story with his ethnicity. He is Masai.

The Masai are a highly conservative ethnic group who live mostly in small communities in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. In a lot of ways they fulfill the fantastical, mythic stereotypes about Africa that live in the Western imagination. They drink blood and cow’s milk and stretch their ear lobes down to their shoulder blades. They wear bright red fabric patterned so loudly they can be seen herding cattle on a grassy savannah from miles away. From their ears, their clothing, their wrists, necks, and ankles, intricate beadwork dangles and shimmers.

Kenya’s famous national parks, where foreigners now come to lean over the sides of safari vehicles and snap pictures of giraffes and lion cubs, sprung up around their homes. Sometimes, for a fee, the foreigners can snap pictures of the Masai as well.

A traditional rite of passage for young Masai men before they entered adulthood was to kill a lion. For women, the transition to adulthood has historically been, and often still is, marked by ritual circumcision in which all or part of girls’ genitals are cut off. Needless to say, gender constructions are strong and culturally very important.

Growing up Peter had never left his small community in southern Kenya. Until he was 19, he had never set foot in Nairobi, Kenya’s booming capital city, a two-hour drive yet a world away. After high school, however, his parents decided he should start a post-graduate course in human resources. They found a technical college in Nairobi’s chaotic central business district, and for the first time in his life Peter came to the city that had before been only a myth.

He had never seen anything like it: the six-lane highway that hugs downtown, the way the skyscrapers cluster together, extending so far he had to curl his neck backwards to see the top. The speed and erratic directions that people move, the ways cars swerve around corners and shoot through intersections; he bumped into people, was tripped over, never seemed to be able to move fast enough or in the right direction.

Peter had always been a loner, and Nairobi didn’t change that. He was living with an uncle who was a pastor, and his world didn’t extend past the small room in his uncle’s house and his classes in the basement of a neon green skyscraper. After class he’d hurry out of downtown, returning immediately home to his room and his computer. He spent hours every day on the internet, seeking out the only form of social interaction he felt comfortable with.

* * *
It was on the Internet that Peter first discovered gay rights and culture. Slowly, tentatively, he began to explore this new concept. At first he told himself he was driven by curiosity. He had never interacted with these issues before, never talked to people who were openly gay. He wondered what they were like, who they were, and how they lived so openly with what so many people hid.
“I don’t think I would have seen any other choice than taking my own life,” he said flatly, maintaining eye contact for the first time in our entire conversation.

Peter knew about gay people before he moved to Nairobi. He was familiar with the whispers and taunts that echoed in the hallways of his high school, knew about the scorn and derision with which religious leaders in his community talked about homosexuality, the hellfire preachers promised when the subject came up. He also knew, even though couldn’t admit it, that something stirred inside of him every time these topics arose.

Peter never really had friends because he never really got people. He knew he was different, that a piece of him had always been missing, or perhaps obscured. Either way, there was something that he could never quite uncover.

Several months into Peter’s stay in Nairobi he met Gabriel on Facebook. They agreed to hang out and quickly became inseparable. Gabriel introduced Peter to his gay friends and invited him to gay rights events and conferences. He taught Peter the lingo, explaining the difference between being intersex and transgendered; he explained to Peter that “transgendered” was a term he sometimes wondered if he identified more with than “gay man.”

Peter’s routine changed almost imperceptibly. He continued going to school and coming back to his uncle’s place, but now Gabriel accompanied him everywhere.

For Peter, the longer they hung out and the more time he spent with Gabriel, the more things focused and became clear: parts of him that had been buried his entire life began to surface, and things began to make sense. Peter had found someone that understood him, and through that he began to understand himself.
Peter isn’t sure what would have happened had he not met Gabriel, but he sees little hope for what his life would have been.

“I don’t think I would have seen any other choice than taking my own life,” he said flatly, maintaining eye contact for the first time in our entire conversation.

Eventually, Peter came out to Gabriel. After two months of intense friendship, they started dating.

* * *
I leaned over the balcony of the downtown bar and away from the loud, thrumming music that had pushed us outside. As I gazed at the empty streets below I listened to Jeremy — a young college student from Nairobi — break down the gay clubbing scene for me.

“The gay scene here is very class-based; which club you go to depends a lot on how much money you have,” Jeremy explained. The one we were at had recently been taken over by management who no longer felt comfortable watching men rub up against and occasionally kiss one another on the dance floor. The club now sat almost empty, the volume of the music trying to make up for the lack of conversation. Jeremy had been unaware of the change and was disappointed at the lost opportunity to show me the gay club scene at its best.

Jeremy is assertive and at ease in his skin. He oozes all the confidence of a young, educated individual whose life is full of opportunities. He lives with his parents in Buru Buru, a middle-class neighborhood in Nairobi. He is studying music at Sauti Academy, a prestigious voice school, and law at Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

Jeremy has known he was gay as long as he could remember and has been out to all his friends since he was 16. He pores over updates from Nairobi’s gay rights organizations; his Facebook and Twitter are a constant stream of news articles, blog posts, and videos about gay rights. Most of the people in his social circle are gay, and he even founded a group for gay students at school.

“The only people who don’t know about [my sexuality] are my mother and people of my mother’s generation,” he said. For Jeremy and many of his contemporaries, acceptance of their sexuality has everything to do with generation.

Nairobi is a city characterized by its generational divide. The upbringing and cultural values of parents in their forties and fifties is almost incomprehensibly different from that of their children in their twenties. Their parents left a life structured around agriculture, most likely in a rural village or town far from Nairobi. Faced with dwindling agricultural production and low employment, many came to Nairobi to seek jobs and be closer to family members who were moving or had already moved.

These parents have raised their children in a world they themselves are unable to comprehend.

Young people grew up with Friends on TV and Tupac on the radio. Their lives started to revolve around Facebook and Twitter early in the social media revolution. Young Kenyans speak a rolling, rapidly evolving slang called sheng. It is formed when Swahili, English, and ethnic languages all flow together, competing for space and using words that have been cut short and turned inside out. Most adults can’t understand it; meanwhile, many young people never learn the ethnic languages their parents grew up with.

For older generations open homosexuality is yet another one of those inexplicable aspects of the new world their children inhabit. It is a strange cultural anomaly and, for many, another example of how their children have been corrupted by modernity and overexposure to Western culture.

The waitress came back with our drinks, and Jeremy sighed when she set down a cold Smirnoff Ice, the condensation running down the side. He sent it back. He preferred room-temperature drinks, a habit in Kenya born from life in rural villages where refrigerators often don’t exist or are too expensive. Nairobi is filled with reminders of both its and its residents not-so-distant rural past.

I asked him about the gay rights group he had founded on campus, surprised it was able to exist and operate without trouble from the administration. The college is, after all, private and religious with a dress code that confiscates men’s earrings and sends women home if their skirts are too short.

The club can’t yet engage in gay rights activism, as not everyone in the group is comfortable with their sexual orientation being public. For now, having meetings to hang out and support one other is enough. In the future, Jeremy would love the club to more actively fight for the rights of gay students.

“At some point it should be about people being out in the school without retribution or any feelings of ill will,” he said.

About half the group is out and half is still closeted. Those who are out actually experience few problems related to their sexuality. There are people on campus who are homophobic, but generally they hold their comments and keep their discrimination to themselves.

“It’s actually expected of my generation to be accepting. I mean, we grew up with Will and Grace.”

Through his stories Jeremy reveals a crucial change occurring in Nairobi: for young people of Jeremy’s age and class, being homophobic actually puts them in the minority. Being comfortable with the presence of homosexuality and having gay friends isn’t yet universal, but it is increasingly the norm.

“It’s actually expected of my generation to be accepting. I mean, we grew up with Will and Grace.”

* * *
Studies in the United States have shown that the single biggest predictor of acceptance of homosexuality is knowing an openly gay person. Interestingly, in the absence of that, exposure to “likable” gay characters on TV shows can have a similar effect.

Nairobi is deeply permeated with American culture. Sitcom reruns play after the nightly news, and entire downtown streets are lined with shops that sell bootlegged versions of HBO series. I’ve always said that I didn’t understand American popular culture until I moved to Nairobi.

Growing up in the States, I had a fairly disparaging view of American television. I read Kerouac and watched the occasional documentary, rolling my eyes at Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. I certainly never would have described the gay characters on American television as positive role models or as significant steps forward in the gay rights movement. They were whiney and stereotypical and often offensive.

As soon as I moved to Kenya, however, I realized that this was the cultural touchstone that many Kenyans had for my country. Most of their questions related to things they had seen on TV, and with all the gay characters popping up across primetime everyone wanted to ask me about gay people.

Nairobians tuned in to watch Ellen DeGeneres’s wedding to Portia de Rossi; they followed the dramatic twists and turns of Callie and Arizona’s relationship on Grey’s Anatomy; they cheered on Adam Lambert on season 8 of American Idol.

The argument that these introductions to gay culture are problematic and misrepresentative certainly has merit. It is hard to argue, however, that they haven’t played some role in the loosening of attitudes surrounding homosexuality in both Kenya and the States.

Soon Kenyans may not even be relying on American television for portrayals of gay people. A popular Kenyan TV show, Shuga, recently introduced Rayban, the first gay main character on Kenyan television.

* * *
Despite his confidence and his optimism, Jeremy’s stories do make it clear that he experiences homophobia. A few months ago on Twitter, Jeremy complimented another man he didn’t know very well. When he logged back on, 17 people had replied with derogatory comments. When the man he had complimented re-tweeted his comment the man linked it to the local police station’s Twitter account with the words “police, arrest this man.”

As Jeremy and I talked about the negative experiences he’d had because of his sexuality I offhandedly used the phrase “African conservatism” to describe people’s reactions to him. Quickly, he corrected me. “Homophobia isn’t about African conservatism, it’s about colonization.”

My face reddened, and I gripped my beer, fighting not to defend myself. I was reminded again that no matter how long I’ve lived here, I’m still prone to the stereotypes about Africa I grew up with. Before colonization, there was no legislation in Kenya regarding homosexuality.

I am certainly not the only one with misconceptions about Africa’s conservatism surrounding gay rights. Despite the fact that homosexuality’s illegality is a result of British influence, colonialism and Western imperialism are often mobilized by Kenyan politicians to argue against gay rights. The existence of homosexuality in Kenya is very often chalked up to Western presence and influence on the continent. Many older Kenyans think that being gay is a crazy idea that young people got from music and TV.

Even today the West continues to play a role in spreading homophobia across Kenya and the rest of Africa. As the conservative battle against gay rights continues to lose ground in the United States, fundamentalist religious organizations are increasingly looking abroad, often to Africa, to invest their time and resources. With its heavy Christian influence and English one of its national languages, Kenya has been a significant recipient of this evangelical activism. Underfunded gay rights organizations in Kenya often feel helpless in fighting back against these powerful foreign organizations with access to large sums of capital.

The most notable example of this is the conference that was hosted in Uganda in the fall of 2009 by American Evangelical leaders Scott Lively, Dan Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge. The theme of the conference was “The Gay Agenda.” The American leaders likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, going as far as to link gays to the Rwandan genocide saying that “they are so far from normalcy that they’re killers, they’re serial killers, mass-murderers, they’re socio-paths… this is the kind of person it takes to run a gas chamber or to do a mass murder, you know like the Rwandan stuff probably involved these guys.”

Perhaps what was most potent to their audience, however, was the language Scott Lively used to describe the threat homosexuality posed to African families and culture. He framed homosexuality as a Western import and warned that is was poised to destroy African culture.

After the conference the three leaders met with Ugandan parliamentarians, including one named David Bahati, to discuss how to continue their fight. Shortly thereafter, Bahati introduced the now infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, popularly dubbed the “kill the gays bill,” into the Uganda Parliament. The bill called for the death penalty for homosexuals who were “serial offenders,” or guilty of “aggravated homosexuality,” HIV-positive individuals, or those who have sex with underage individuals. It also required Ugandans to report homosexuals and outlawed activism on behalf of gay rights. Some of the language in the bill came from Lively’s presentation at the conference.

After international outcry the bill was stopped. It has been reintroduced more recently, albeit in softened terms that have removed language referring to the death penalty.

Rick Warren is the well-known founder and pastor at Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in California as well as the author of the bestselling The Purpose Driven Life, a Christian self-help book. A year before the bill, he travelled through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda preaching. During these trips he has said that “homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus is not a human right.” Warren came under fire when he failed to denounce Uganda’s bill saying only, “it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.”

The American leaders likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, going as far as to link gays to the Rwandan genocide saying that “they are so far from normalcy that they’re killers, they’re serial killers, mass-murderers, they’re socio-paths… this is the kind of person it takes to run a gas chamber or to do a mass murder, you know like the Rwandan stuff probably involved these guys.”

Evidence also suggests that some of these American churches have invested significant money in convincing Africans that homosexuality is un-Christian and un-African. Money for anti-gay activism is difficult to track as American Evangelical influence is spread widely throughout the continent in orphanages, schools, churches, and various charities.

Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Anglican minister, however, has reported that a broad shift across the continent has occurred with African churches moving away from the financial support of more gay-friendly Episcopalian churches to receive more funding from Evangelical ministries. Reverend John Makokha, the founder of Other Sheep Kenya, has also reported receiving monetary offers from American Evangelical leaders to discontinue his religiously-based gay rights activism.

Four-fifths of Kenyans identify as Christian. Christianity flows heavily throughout Kenyan culture, politics, and social life. Every Sunday morning the bedroom of my Nairobi apartment fills with the sound of gospel music, every word of the preacher’s sermon climbing through my third story windows. If moving would help this, I’d consider it, but these sermons are projected across the city through loudspeakers that are impossible to avoid.

Christianity is probably the single biggest contributor to homophobia in Kenya. Peter and Gabriel both experienced the role of religion firsthand when family members discovered their homosexuality. Peter’s uncle became suspicious of all the time his loner nephew was suddenly spending with his effeminate companion and confronted him about it. Reveling in his newly discovered identity Peter told his Uncle that Gabriel was his boyfriend.

“I will do you one favor,” his uncle said, “and that is that I won’t tell your parents, but I am a man of God, and you cannot live in my house anymore.” Peter’s father is also a pastor, and like Peter’s uncle his religion dictates his perceptions of homosexuality.

Gabriel had been kicked out of his own parents’ house several months earlier, and Peter moved into Gabriel’s apartment. Gabriel’s parents are also pastors, and when they found a YouTube video of a gay rights conference Gabriel had attended they informed him he could no longer live with them. Peter and Gabriel lived in Gabriel’s cramped apartment until they could no longer afford it and then they moved into the safe house.

When Peter and Gabriel talk about the future they are uncertain. Peter doesn’t know if he will be able to finish school; his uncle has stopped paying his school fees. Gabriel was never able to go to college; his parents kicked him out before he had a chance. Peter worries every day that his parents will find out about his sexuality. Peter and Gabriel don’t know how long they will stay in the safe house, or where they will go if they are forced to leave.

“But we are hopeful,” Gabriel told me, smiling. “Things are changing in Kenya, and we are ready for that change. Things cannot continue to stay as they are.”

When we finished talking that day at the safe house they left the room together, Peter leading. As I watched them walk away, Gabriel reached his hand up and rested it on the middle of Peter’s back, letting it slide down slowly, and then fall away, as they walked into the dark, empty hallway.

* * *
I met Phillip in an upscale coffee shop inside what was once Nairobi’s only mall, a boxy, beige architectural atrocity where shoppers can buy French-made cream puffs and wheatgrass shakes.
He ordered a cappuccino and I sipped my black coffee. Our two drinks together cost more than most Nairobians’ daily wages.

Phillip is articulate and unassuming. With round glasses and a sweater tied around his shoulders, his demeanor is that of a British intellectual. His accent is a product of more than a decade of education in the UK. Like an increasing number of Kenyans who recognize Nairobi’s new potential as a global city he’s returned from abroad to live and work in the city.

Nairobi is experiencing one of the highest population growth rates of any African city. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has estimated that Nairobi has grown by a million residents every decade since 1980. Its current population is almost 4 million and is projected to exceed 5 million by 2025. Less than 50 years ago, when Kenya became independent from British colonial rule, its population was only 350,000.

Not only its burgeoning population but also its increasingly solid infrastructure and high levels of internet accessibility have turned Nairobi into one of the most important cities in Africa. It is an attractive place for development initiatives and foreign investors and is home to hundreds of thriving locally-owned businesses such as Kenya Airways, Safaricom, and Equity Bank. International companies such as Coca-Cola and Google have opened regional headquarters here. Organizations like UNEP and United Nations Africa and The Middle East have chosen Nairobi for their headquarters. All of this has created hundreds of thousands of job opportunities in the past 20 years.

This growth and potential has attracted a large expatriate population, and also convinced many Kenyans from the diaspora to return to Nairobi in a move that once would have been considered a step backward. Phillip is one of these Kenyans with the freedom to live abroad who has opted instead to return.
Phillip and I met through a mutual friend who works at a Dutch NGO. Phillip was working as a consultant coordinating activities between various Dutch NGOs in Kenya.

Phillip came out to his parents at 18. When he first told them they expressed mild concern, but the concern was short-lived. His mother is now quick to tell him that, “this is who you are, and there’s no sense basing it on other people’s opinions, regardless of who they are.” Before they separated, his former partner was a regular fixture at Sunday brunch in his parents’ house and a guest at any given family gathering.

Phillip is comfortable with his coworkers and with anyone else he might encounter knowing his sexuality. “I’m not going to go out and advertise it, but I’m also not going to lie about it.” Because of his economic status and his liberal social circle, he explained that “being gay is really a non-issue.”
Over the course of our conversation, Phillip told me about friends of his, a lesbian couple, who recently had a baby with a gay man. “No one bats an eye,” he told me.

I told Phillip about Peter and the dusty rural home he was now alienated from and the dismal prospects he faced before moving to Nairobi. Phillip raised his eyebrows in surprise at the story and said, “I do take it for granted that this kind of acceptance might not be the case for all people in my situation.”
Nairobi is an intensely segregated city with massive disparities of wealth and opportunity. The city is dotted with malls where foreigners and the Kenyan elite enjoy gelato while decorative waterfalls ripple in the background. Outside these malls homeless children with muddy, threadbare clothing beg for food and money.

In 2010 Nairobi had the highest growth of luxury real estate prices in the world. Eerily quiet gated communities have mansions tucked neatly in rows. Each is built like the end-of-term project of a first- year architecture student; no garnish, embellishment, or flashy detail is spared. Often, most strikingly, they are built with Nairobi’s slums spreading out before them. Looking into the not-so-far distance one can see the other side of life in Nairobi, an ocean of rusty, corrugated iron sheets.

For gay men these divisions are even more salient. Economic privilege and geographic location are often the difference between a life lived in constant fear and a life of relative ease and freedom. For most men of middle and upper classes homosexuality is neither a burden nor a curse but simply another aspect of their life. For others, it can be a matter of life and death.

Gay men without economic means are subjected to police brutality and rape at alarming rates. They often lack access to medical care and in particular sexual health services, sometimes being refused care when a doctor discovers they are gay. Young gay people are often kicked out of school because of actual or perceived homosexuality. Without the economic means to protect themselves they live with the constant threat that people will out them to authorities or send thugs to their homes to beat them up.
Phillip estimates that the type of freedom and ease he enjoys is a right reserved for probably the economic top five to ten percent of Kenyans. “The further you get away from economic and social power the harder it gets,” he explains.

For his friends, gay rights in the rest of the country “is out of our realm of consciousness… we’re in this bubble where it doesn’t really affect us.” He said this slowly, thoughtfully, as if it wasn’t something he thought about often, or had to think about often.

When Phillip speaks about the future he is optimistic. “If I look back ten years at this country, I don’t even recognize it,” he told me. He went as far as to claim that in another ten years recognition of same-sex partnerships will be a likely reality. “Things will happen very quietly and take everyone by surprise. It might seem like a hard-line, conservative society, but in reality, I think we’re very open… especially once we understand things,” he said as he slid his now empty mug to the side of the table.

But when asked about the rest of the country, and whether these changes will ripple outside of Nairobi’s city boundaries, Phillip was doubtful. Referring to rural areas, he said, “That’s a completely different type of existence. It’s like two different countries.” And with a swipe of his hand, he brushed the rest of the nation away in one stroke.

“The further you get away from economic and social power the harder it gets,” he explains.

As we parted ways, Phillip paused, and then asked me not to use his real name in the article. I nodded emphatically and explained that I knew what a sensitive issue this could be.

He smiled and shook his head. “No, I’ve just always hated how my name looks in print.”

* * *
The rainy season in Nairobi arrived weeks late this year, leaving everyone speculating daily with heightened anticipation about when it would start.

One day the city is cracked and dry from months of sweltering heat, lit up by sunshine so bright that it wakes me up through the cracks in the curtain every morning. People are dry, their lips chapped and their hands chafed. Stray dogs splay themselves across the ground panting. The smallest breeze across Nairobi’s streets whips up clouds of copper-colored dust. It leaves the skin on my cheeks with a perpetual dusting of grime; dirt collects in the cracks of my hand and under my fingernails.

And then one afternoon, after weeks of waiting, ominous, dark gray clouds roll across the sky, blanketing the city and making mid-afternoon look like dusk. They hang for hours, threatening. The air is thick and heavy with anticipation. Then that overpoweringly familiar smell comes as the rain first touches down on the city streets.

For weeks afterward, streets once dusty fill with mud. Rivers of rain water mixed with sewage and garbage flow down their sides. The rain catches everyone unexpectedly throughout the day, Nairobi opening up its skies and shedding their contents.

I stood outside on my balcony, watching the rain fall and puddles collect in the dips and grooves of the apartment building’s parking lot. I was on the phone with Jeremy. He had just completed his final concert at his music academy and looked forward to college graduation.

We talked about what was ahead for him and what life for gay men in Kenya would look like in the future.
“I just want something really huge to happen so that no one can ignore us anymore,” he said. “I’m sick of this being something that cycles in and out of the news. I want it to explode so that something has to be done about it.”

Jeremy enjoys freedoms that would make it easy to be complacent, and yet he is anything but.

As we talked the rain picked up speed, the raindrops battering the parking lot below, growing in volume and frequency by the second. Jeremy and I had to talk louder and louder to hear each other.

“We’re at this huge moment, a turning point where things are about to change,” he shouted over the increasingly crackly line.

“As of right now, things could still go either way, things could really get a lot better for us, or they could get worse, but if change is going to come, it’s going to come now… we can’t be quiet any longer.”

The storm destroyed the cell phone reception, mangling Jeremy’s voice and then cutting it out completely. I waited outside for a few more moments, letting the rain spray my face. As the storm reached a crescendo, thunder echoed through the sky, almost shaking the ground. Lightning touched down, jagged spears of bright white in the distance. I thought of Jeremy’s words: “If change is going to come, it’s going to come now,” and I couldn’t help but think, Change isn’t coming, it’s already here. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

Discover Matador