Coming out in Kenya

Pauline Kimani is one of Kenya's few openly lesbian women. Interview by Arusha Topazzini
August 2009

'I want to live in a world that's ideal for me, I believe everyone should have the right to live in a world ideal for themselves.' Pauline Kimani is a 23-year-old gay rights activist, feminist and one of Kenya's few lesbians to openly admit her sexuality. Pauline found she was lesbian early in life, after developing a schoolgirl crush on her sports teacher, but it was not until she was 16 that she came out to her middle-class family in Nairobi.

'I felt afraid,' says Pauline, 'because I had heard stories, especially in school, that attraction between people of the same sex wasn't normal, and it was considered evil and un-African.'

Homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries. In Kenya, it is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. Although no one has ever been convicted, the existence of this law has kept most of Kenya's lesbian, gay, bi and trans-sexual (LGBT) community in the closet. There are high incidences of suicide and drug abuse, and no legal recourse in the face of discrimination and hate crimes.

When Pauline came out, her mother took her to a therapist who gave her anti-depressants as a 'cure'. Pauline's sister accused her of bringing shame to the family. Her father accepted her choice, but died soon after. Only her younger brother, Edwin, has stood by her over the years, respecting both her sexuality and activism.

Seven years on, her sister is more reconciled with Pauline's lesbianism, but her relationship with her mother is still fraught with pain. 'Having my mom come from a very Christian background, and read, translate and interpret the bible the way everybody else is doing, gives her grounds to hate the lesbian in me. But I expect her to challenge her biased judgment, because in the end, it's the same bible that's about preaching love.'

Pauline blames religious leaders for systematically fueling homophobia in Kenya. Homosexuality is constantly described as a crime against Christianity and Islam, with many churches running sexual orientation conversions and banning homosexuals from services. American conservative pastors regularly tour Kenya and have daily television shows there, bolstering homophobic beliefs.

Hate crimes against the LGBT community are frequent, but most go unreported. Pauline had to move house when she was attacked by neighbours after taking part in Kenya's first television talk show on homosexuality in August last year. At least two other members of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) present at the show were also attacked.

This was not the first time for Pauline, nor does she expect it to be the last. She came out to four male college friends a few years back. One of them, she says, wanted a relationship with her. She invited them for drinks to celebrate her coming out, and later that night offered to drive them home. On the way to one of the men's house, 'one of them grabbed me from behind,' Pauline explains, 'and then they started ripping my clothes apart. That's when they raped me, in my own car.'

Pauline did not tell anyone or report it. She tried to commit suicide. Soon after, she was raped again by an unknown group of boys on campus. Targeted rapes of lesbians are very common - and not only in Kenya. South Africa, for instance, despite being the only African country to give sexual minorities equal constitutional rights, has one of the highest incidences of so-called 'corrective rapes' of lesbians.

It's nothing new, says Pauline: rape has always been used to intimidate assertive women in Kenya, like feminists and female politicians.

Surviving these attacks gave her strength to keep fighting for LGBT rights. She joined GALCK within a month of its creation two years ago. From the onset, the coalition prioritised HIV healthcare and treatment. Studies estimate that sex between men accounts for at least five to ten per cent of HIV cases in Kenya, but HIV counselling and treatment programmes have been systematically geared towards heterosexuals. Cases of LGBT people being denied healthcare are common.

One major breakthrough for Kenya's gay coalition was to->] collaborate with Liverpool VCT, the only HIV counselling and treatment centre in Kenya to cater to LGBT people. With pride, Pauline marched at the 2006 World Aids Day, when Kenya's gay coalition went public, and then at the 2007 World Social Forum where for the first time LGBT people from the East African community claimed public space to demand their rights.

'Even if there is not any social recognition,' says Pauline, 'at least people now know we exist.'

Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya

Arusha Topazzini is a freelance reporter


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yasmin 17 January 2011, 19.56 a lesbian n know our rights well but th fact that lesbianism is not tretad wit kindness in our societies we rather stay unpronounced,as pauline we also face ridicule,harrasment n suffer for stigmatisation to th extend of havin affairs wit men u dont feel to cover up.

Archie 22 October 2011, 08.14

I wish i was as brave as you. I’m bi.

Yvette 26 June 2012, 17.13

Am a lesbian n we cnt n wont alwayz hide hu we r xo….get used 2 it o assume we dnt exist cz our lives must go on either way…

Mo 5 July 2012, 18.11

i am a 21yr old lesbian who is still in the closet but some of my friends know.this is a mordan society and gay people in kenya should be given the same treatment and rights as the str8 people.

Nicole 11 August 2012, 16.15

Thank you for being so brave.
My partner and I know we are privileged to live in a place where we are only verbally abused for our sexuality. I wish i knew how to be more supportive to lgbt folks in Africa

Maggy 9 October 2012, 14.03

Trying to figure out who iam…I’m married but have huge feelings for females. I’m scared of coming out of my shell.
Congrats Pauline. You are so brave.

Firefly sparkle 16 October 2012, 17.56

While I respect that everyone has their own life to live and I would be wrong to judge another – I mean, I’m not homophobic and I respect freedom and privacy BUT I think asking religious people to be cool with this is so unfair.I mean. First it says in the Bible and Quran and all holy books that homosexuality is wrong so you are trying to force people to accept you even though it goes against what they believe in. The Bible says we should love one another yes but also abide by the laws good has given us for our own protection and happiness. Everyone has freedom to have their own beliefs ~ that it what your fighting for right? Enyet you put down other people for their beliefs?!? I find that to be a bit of a double standard and I’m disappointed. I commend this woman for being bold and standing for her beliefs and rights! Brilliant! But we must never let our sexuality define us. It is not who we are but simply what we possess. never let yourself our anyone define you by that ~ you have a name,a purpose,a Dream and A legacy to leave when you are gone… Focus on this and the rest will fall into place :)

in creation, help 3 November 2012, 12.17

You are the only one that can help yourself
your mate in the business will see it as normal and cann’t help.
Take an individual perspective toward this matter and think your way out
It is not a business, so don’t see me as someone that want to spoil your business there other business you can do aside that.
You need a psychologist or a counselor

what should you do, think right, because good think good product

Keiretsu 12 April 2013, 21.05

I am lesbian in my 30 ties. Not been in an relationship with girl yet. Had a crush with my teacher in school in my teenage and after that my life became withdrawn after feeling hated and left out and despised. Tried to be with men since then,but still struggling. It’s ashame no one to turn to or share your misery with or to feel understood

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