Under ‘ordinary’ circumstances, the year 2020 would have been a very progressive year for the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK). The Secretariat had overcome severe broad-ranging constraints of the previous year and now, keenly anticipated forging ahead with exciting plans – predominantly involving extensive in-person interactions and in-country travel. Then, COVID-19 came along and turned Life, as we knew it, on its head.
Having personally experienced movement restrictions following the 1982 coup attempt, this lockdown was a mind-bender for me because of its basis in, and magnitude around, global public health. Back then, ‘national order’ was swiftly and brutally restored. This time around, while the brutality presented itself differently, any semblance of ‘a return to order’ was pure guesswork, impinging upon personal and professional responsibilities far greater now than they were 38 years ago.
Before considering the impact of COVID on the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer +other identities) community, some context would be helpful. The lived realities of most LGBTQ+ people in Kenya are characterized by extreme stigma and discrimination from reprehensible bullies and their intentional, or unwitting accomplices at home, in school, at work, and/or in social spaces such as places of worship and recreation. These violations are exacerbated by the withholding of state protections enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution, which actually speak to the rights of all Kenyans. They are further compounded by the paradoxically irreligious and relentless efforts of some faith leaders to detach LGBTQ+ people from their own beliefs, and/or to turn other believers against them. A cautionary point to ponder is that very few LGBTQ+ individuals in Kenya possess the privilege or agency to navigate their daily lives nominally removed from pervasive hate and harm of homophobia and transphobia – degrees of separation that lie just a catastrophe apart.
On a more positive and resilient note about love, care and visionary leadership, Minority Womyn (inclusive of other genders) in Action (MWA), a GALCK member organization, has been deliberate and intentional in making the world a kinder place for LBQ womyn and ITGNC (Intersex Transgender Gender Non-Conforming) folks whose experiences read like a litany of exclusion, isolation, environmental hostility, unemployment, and hardships. MWA’s initiative titled ‘Radical Love as Liberation in Space’ that provided communion and basic care packages to needy, unemployed and homeless LBQ womyn and ITGNC folks over the 2019 Christmas Holiday period, is a testament to what queer communities of support look like. It primed the stage for what was yet to come.
With an unspoken theme of kindness and care threading through LBQ (Lesbian Bisexual Queer) initiatives, Queer Hive, another GALCK member organization, thrice brought their LBQ and GNC (Gender Non-Conforming) members together with a certified queer therapist, through an initiative titled ‘Afya Un-boxed’. Like its creative title, this approach applied music and movement, art, and talk therapy sessions as innovative tools with which to navigate challenging issues such as IPV (Intimate Partner Violence), depression, anxiety and substance abuse – with follow-on provisions for members needing further guidance.
In April 2020, a virtual assessment of GALCK members’ status portrayed dire repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown – disrupted operations, interrupted critical healthcare services, indefinitely suspended outreach, an extensive loss of livelihoods, exponentially increased stigma, discrimination, violence, evictions, conversion attempts, abuse, scapegoating and mental anguish. In response, the GALCK Secretariat quickly redirected its original programme plans, rolling out a COVID Relief initiative to mitigate the fallout and buttress members’ coping efforts. This involved 1) disbursing modest subsidies to GALCK member organisations to purchase and distribute PPEs, food and other essential commodities to their respective members in dire need; 2) capacitating GALCK’s Emergency Security Response Team members to handle an unprecedented insecurity spike, and 3) setting up and offering free tele-counselling services to any community member distressed by the isolation.
Long story short, the financial subsidies eased hardships for 2100 distressed LGBTQ+ people. 796 LGBTQ+ folks targeted by violent bullies in Nairobi, the Rift region and at the Coast were ably responded to by GALCK’s Emergency Security Response team members. And, by the end of 2020, GALCK’s free tele-counselling services had been accessed by 75 LGBTQ+ people, seeking guidance on a raft of issues including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and PTSD. Given this challenging work, even the GALCK Secretariat has now retained in-house psychotherapeutic services for the mental health and wellbeing of its staff.
The pandemic would have caused significantly greater devastation within the Kenyan LGBTQ+ movement if it wasn’t for UHAI, Africa’s first indigenous activist-led fund (www.uhai-eashri.org), quickly shifting gears and moving celestial bodies to get more resources to where they were most desperately needed. As such, UHAI was able to resource 1) immediate humanitarian needs such as access to hormones, food, toiletries (including diapers for folks with children) and in some instances group homes; 2) virtual access to psychotherapists, discussion spaces and psychosocial support forums; 3) logistics and modalities facilitating access to critical ARVs and checking in on community members in home-based care; 4) data bundles and airtime so that folks could stay connected, and most importantly 5) flexible, general support grants ensuring that LGBTQ+ organisations unable to predict their futures, could remain operational even as they re-organised programmatically.
A testament to the resilience, courage and bravery of the Kenyan LGBTQ+ community is that we have risen up against our oppressors and are determined to make our world a better, kinder, more caring and loving place, despite the unfavorable odds.