‘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->www.mask.org.za] 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.’
Arusha Topazzini is a freelance reporter