Being gay in Africa

As in much of Africa, sex between men is illegal in Kenya, a legacy of British colonial rule.

“I simply don’t understand what the problem is,” says Steven, a peer educator from Mtwapa, near Mombasa. “Why can’t they leave us alone to be what we want to be?”,
The office of the Gay and Lesbian Coallition Kenya

This simple wish seems a long way from coming true. Men who have sex with men face discrimination in employment, lack of freedom of association, hate speech and arbitrary arrest.

“For me it has been difficult,” says Steven. “People stigmatised me but everyone needs somewhere they can call home.”

The stigma that arises out of the criminalisation of sex between men seriously increases the risk of getting HIV. Such punitive legal environments are one of the major barriers to HIV prevention.

Until recently there was little safe sex information that acknowledged unprotected anal sex as being a high risk for HIV transmission. According to the Kenya National Strategic Plan men who have sex with men are one of the groups at highest risk of HIV.

However, there are few services provided for men who have sex with men. Ishtar is a member of the Kenya AIDS NGO consortium (KANCO) – a linking organisation of the Alliance. Ishtar are a health and social wellbeing organisation for men who have sex with men. Every month Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) sessions are held at the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya Centre in Nairobi. Peer educators and open forums educate men on safe sex and offer condoms and lubricants.

Peter Njane is Ishtar’s director. “Our priority is for better referrals for medical care and for people to know their status.” One of the ways they do this is by working with Liverpool VCT a counselling, testing and treatment centre. They take mobile clinics for evening events where MSM meet.

These are the only specific health services for men who have sex with men in Nairobi. Men who attend government sexual health clinics are likely to be mistreated. This is acknowledged by the Government themselves.

“We realised partnership was needed to get together with members of the most at risk populations. Public opinion has yet to be convinced but we are dealing with high level policy and opinion leaders. We need to move with what is an evidence-based contribution to HIV infection,” says Dr Sobbie Mulindi, Deputy Director of the Coordination and Support at the National AIDS Control Council, Office of the President.

Poverty has an important effect on men who have sex with men and their experiences. Denis Nzioka is one of Kenya’s few open gay activists. “Men in the slums have a more difficult time than bourgeois gay men. Poverty perpetuates homophobia. Gay people have much to fear from the young man on the street who is jobless, has no future, no education and no hope in life.”
Stephen, a male sex worker ©Nell Freeman for the Alliance

Stephen, a male sex worker

Poverty also drives men into sex work. Stephen has been a sex worker since he was 18 years old. Now at 35 and HIV positive he wants to create a better future for himself. “There are many more sex workers now because of the poverty. I come to Ishtar to make friends, get condoms, education and awareness of HIV.” Most of his clients though refuse to use the condoms.

One of the factors cited behind the growth in the anti-gay clampdown across Africa is fundamentalist religion. Denis Nziokla works for GALCK as a religious relations assistant. “One of the roadblocks keeping discrimination is religion. We need to engage with religious leaders and tell them to change what they are saying. Gay people are human beings.”