Despite existing laws that discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, Kenya has a growing number of women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. Since the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) movement gained ground in the mid-2000s, great effort has been put in place to address violence and discrimination against this group. Some of the cases of violence and discrimination have included physical violence, home evictions, sexual violence, street harassment, expulsion from schools, psychological abuses, and estrangement from one’s family and community.
Given their unique position – as part of the LGBTI community and the women’s movement – LBTQ women experience unique and intersecting challenges. There is still very little data on the actual scope and lived experience of marginalisation and discrimination of LBTQ women in Kenya. In addition, due to the emphasis on the health needs of gay men and men who have sex with men, which is part of the effort to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the health needs of LBTQ women have been further marginalised. Pervasive myths regarding the health needs of this community (e.g. women who have sex with other women cannot be infected with HIV, or that lesbians do not need specialised sexual and reproductive health care because they can’t get pregnant from their sexual relationships) have worked to further marginalise this group from discourses regarding access to health.
Feminist movements across Africa have begun embracing their LBTQ siblings but not after a fraught conversation about their place in the women’s rights movement. Historically, African feminists (an extremely diverse group) have been hesitant to include LBTQ women lest they be accused of being ‘man hating lesbians’. This fear, though partly founded, also belied the ‘respectability bias’ of the women’s rights movement, a feature found in most feminist movements across the globe.
In Kenya LBTQ feminists are continually asserting their role in Kenyan society. They are not only claiming and reclaiming feminist spaces but also pushing the society’s conception of what and who ‘African women’ are. Through research and advocacy, LBTQ women activists are questioning the legacy of colonial laws that criminalise ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature,’ the myth that sexual and gender diversity is ‘un-African’, as well as essentialist notions of the role African women should play in the societies that they are part of.
This article was based on Research on ‘The Lived Experiences of Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Women in Kenya’, a report credited to the Coalition of African Lesbians and the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya.
The report explores the lived experiences of Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer (LBQ) identifying women in Kenya. It uses the acronym ‘LBQ’ as opposed to ‘LBT’ because of the political context of the Kenyan LBQ movement. The term queer refers to any person whose sexual or gender identity or expression does not conform to the gender pronouns he or she and these persons do not necessarily identify as lesbian or bisexual. This may include Trans identifying people, gender non-conforming people or others. The data used to develop the analyses was acquired through a qualitative research carried out in three major towns in Kenya. As such, this study provides insights into the scopes and experiences of structural and everyday violence LBQ women face in Kenya.
At present, Kenya is at a crossroad. On one hand, LGBTIQ organizations have become more visible and are increasingly recognized by State institutions. On the other hand tensions around LGBTIQ people are also on the rise within Government and public domains. Kenyan society is marked by a deep-seated homophobia, often whipped up by right-wing evangelical support from within Kenya and also from the USA. LBQ organizing within the Kenyan LGBTIQ movement is much less visible. Of the 16 LGBTIQ groups under the umbrella of GALCK, only two are actively working specifically on LBQ women issues. There is no single organization in Kenya working specifically on health among LBQ women.
As a result, very little literature is available on the diversity of woman-to-woman relationships, and the sexual attractions, romantic expressions and even formal marriages in pre-colonial, colonial, and even post-colonial Kenya that existed with them. It is widely known that a great number of Kenyan communities had (or still have) institutions of marriage that allowed older women to marry younger women and for each other to express such emotions in practice.
Kenya promulgated a new constitution in 2010 which seeks to ensure liberty, justice, equality and fraternity of all its citizens. More specifically, its provisions guarantee economic, social and cultural rights. These are stipulated by the Bill of Rights and thus form an integral part of Kenya’s democratic state.
A partial answer as to why LBQ women are under-represented in positions of power and in public advocacy can be found in the emphasis by NGOs and international donors on ‘men who sex with men’ in attempts to curb the HIV/AIDS crisis. Another contributing factor is tied to the patriarchal power configurations that still affirm the dominance of men over women, even within queer organizing. However, the State continues to discriminate against LBQ women through frequent arrests, denial of access to basic rights and amenities, and through all kinds of other exclusion mechanisms that hamper the participation of LBQ women as rightful citizens in Kenyan society.
LBQ relationships are generally deemed ‘ok’ as long as they do not threaten heterosexual structures. This is illustrated by the fact that LBQ women are framed as ‘victims’ of past heteronormative societal structures for example: growing up with a violent father, past sexual violence by a heterosexual partner or past emotional challenges by an unfaithful heterosexual partner.
The lived experiences of LBQ women were indeed shaped by the oppressive identity positions dominant in Kenya society. However, the way these shaped and intersected with different gender expressions, levels of education, religion, class positions, geographical location, and family backgrounds, among others, varied widely. Certainly, the only point of convergence among all the participants was their awareness of ‘being different’ with regard to their sexual identifications and practices. Nonetheless, this shared sense of difference played out in dramatically different ways in their lives.
Alongside police brutality and violence from family and members of the wider public, the participants also stated that many LBQ women face evictions from their homes. Sometimes violence was meted out with the approval of their parents, and with the objective of teaching them to conform to gender and sexual norms. In explaining the impact of such violence, participants referred to a suicide case in July 2012. An LBQ woman committed suicide in Siaya County after her parents had held her hostage and had organized to have an older male family member rape her repeatedly in an effort to impregnate her and ‘cure’ her of what was widely termed as 'lesbianism'.
The high levels of stress and even violence the LBQ experience in their daily lives leads to depression, insomnia and anxiety. As a result a large part of ‘lesbian culture’ in the larger cities in Kenya consists of heavy drinking and drugs abuse. In fact, the lack of information and proper health services, specifically mental health services, came out as one of the main urgent issues to be addressed by the LBQ movement.
The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is the national umbrella body for Kenyan organizations working for the rights and social well-being of sexual and gender minorities. At policy level, GALCK advocates legal and policy reforms. Furthermore, the organization seeks to transform negative attitudes and behaviour towards sexual and gender minorities. Ensuring access for LGBTIQ persons to sexual and reproductive health services tailored to their particular needs is one of the organization’s core objectives.
Most religious institutions in Kenya are unashamed incubators for homophobia and intolerance for sexual and gender minorities. However, The Other Sheep Ministries, has been ministering to the queer community for the last five years. In 2014, another LGBTIQ friendly church, the United Coalition of Affirming Africans (UCAA) fosters dialogue between leaders with Christian and Muslim backgrounds. It campaigns for the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTIQ persons within religious spaces.
Wherever there is homophobia, queer persons are targeted, discriminated against and denied access to services. Six themes have been identified to bring about positive change in LBQ women’s lives in Kenya these are: Legal Structures, Safety, Health, Family, Spirituality and Class Positions.