Journeying through sexuality, activism and the internet

9 Noviembre 2017

Image taken from website of National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

“Do you remember the first time you used the internet?” someone asked at the APC Making a Feminist Internet gathering in Malaysia this October.
I do not. Nevertheless, I do remember being fascinated by the word GOOGLE. I rolled it around my tongue trying to taste clues of its origins. It did not sound English. It felt a little foolish to look it up on a dictionary. I just checked, turns out that it is a play on the word “Googol” coined by a nine-year-old kid to represent 1 followed by a hundred zeros. Some nine year old huh? Also all my research could be wrong, so do not quote me.

Anyways, I soon was hooked onto the resourcefulness of this strangely named thing. It had answers, answers for all of my questions, at a time and place where I could not pose them even to a mirror in the privacy of my room. I asked google all manner of questions. Why do I have pimples, directions to places, lyrics to popular songs, all the answers to my law school assignments and eventually the big question; am I gay?

I remember little details about that day. It was towards the end of the year, 2007, perhaps November. I had a picture of jacarandas in bloom on my screen saver. The ground smelled of rain and I was sitting outside a family friend’s shop waiting for my mom to complete her purchase so we could walk home together. I remember typing the letters G-A-Y then doing a quick scan of my surroundings before pressing the enter button. I remember tapping my fingers on my thighs waiting for the results to load. I did not know what I expected. I knew that the results were not satisfactory. There were a couple of definitions, images of gay icons and the pride flag. This is not what I needed. I needed something closer to home. So I searched for ‘Gay in Kenya’, and with those three words began a journey that has brought me here to being a feminist human rights lawyer working on the rights of LGBTIQ persons in Kenya.

I remember little details about that day. It was towards the end of the year, 2007, perhaps November. I had a picture of jacarandas in bloom on my screen saver. The ground smelled of rain and I was sitting outside a family friend’s shop waiting for my mom to complete her purchase so we could walk home together. I remember typing the letters G-A-Y then doing a quick scan of my surroundings before pressing the enter button.

Over the next five years, I found every reason to go back to that search. I found the image results and spent hours looking at the faces on my screen, so alien yet with whom I shared a truth so prodigious and so intimate I could not help a growing attachment to them. I found links, followed them to websites that bore scanty to no information. Back then no organization dared display their physical addresses publicly. Still I searched. I found articles and videos. There had been a public celebration of the International Day against Homophobia in 2010 and the sensationalist media had capitalized on the event. Someone had interviewed male sex workers in the Coast; someone else had done a feature on bisexual men and their risk of contracting HIV. All of it was fodder for my young questioning mind. I wrote papers for my class assignments. I attempted to make a case for persons fleeing their countries on grounds of sexual orientation for my refugee law class. I wrote on the insufficient protections for sexual gender minorities in the new Kenyan constitution for my constitutional law class. I poked holes on the criminal procedure code concerning transgender persons navigating the justice system. Yet this whole time my approach remained hawkish. Perched on a tree, outside the realm of admitted sexual or gender non-conformism I theorized, I prescribed but not once did I place myself in my truth. That of a person, cognizant of their non-conformity but deathly afraid of affirming it.

Perched on a tree, outside the realm of admitted sexual or gender non-conformism. I theorized, I prescribed but not once did I place myself in my truth. That of a person, cognizant of their non-conformity but deathly afraid of affirming it.

In 2012, my curiosity about refugees led to an internship interview with a refugee organization based in Nairobi. I was specifically attracted to their sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) unit mainly because the work intersected with two of the issues I had wanted to work on within my legal career.

My childhood had been a peculiar one. Born and raised in Kenya’s North Eastern Province with a traditional, conservative, majority Muslim population, I had struggled with being a Christian child from an ‘upcountry’ single parent family. Add to that I was fat, loud, extremely opinionated and completely unbothered by all my non-conformity. All attempts to make me feel uncomfortable or inadequate were met by indifferent stares from me. I saw my mother for the total badass that she was. I did not see why no one else could. I was happy, healthy and doing well at school, I did not understand how a dad or being Muslim could enhance my life. In Garissa, I had witnessed thousands of refugee families, haggard, poor, exhausted in transit from different parts of Somalia and wondered about how useful I could be to them. I had vowed to grow up and work with refugee children and mothers. The refugee organization offered me just that. As if a gift from the universe, I was assigned on my first day to work with LGBTIQ refugees under the SGBV program and it felt for me that the universe had conspired all through life to bring me to that moment.

In Garissa, I had witnessed thousands of refugee families, haggard, poor, exhausted in transit from different parts of Somalia and wondered about how useful I could be to them. I had vowed to grow up and work with refugee children and mothers. The refugee organization offered me just that.

My work with HIAS very quickly exposed me to another side of queerness that I had never quite thought of or experienced. My client’s sexuality had repeatedly been used as a weapon against them. In their countries of origin, sexual violence had been utilised as a weapon of war. Men whose expressions of gender were perceived as effeminate were gang raped and assigned ‘Husbands’. Women too had been taken and ‘tamed’ as wives. Families had been torn apart, stripped off their dignity and all their worldly possessions. They had travelled to Kenya for refuge, for respite from the brutality of their realities. Yet Kenya was no better. Kenya had no protections even for its own LGBTIQ community.

My government did not care that thousands of Kenyans were being targeted and harassed routinely by both state and non-state actors on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such a government could not therefore afford protections for refugee/ asylum seekers who were sexual and gender minorities. The only way my clients stood a chance at survival was by ensuring that they were relocated to a third country with better protections for them. This situation motivated the dream of NGLHRC.
I met Eric, my colleague and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Nairobi during my internship. He was my direct supervisor. I liked him instantly; he was a dreamer and completely dedicated to our clients. We struck an easy friendship, he was out, gay and proud and I had finally allowed myself to speak my truth. I was gay and I was enough.

I had finally allowed myself to speak my truth. I was gay and I was enough.

In the few months we worked together at HIAS, we dreamed together of futures in which we validly existed and contributed to society. We spoke at length of the solutions we thought necessary for people like us. These conversations and a hundred others with queers, allies, families, civil society, and members of the judiciary, legislators, homophobes, our clients and many others conceived and later birthed what is now the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission. The commission quickly set about establishing a legal aid clinic for all persons violated or discriminated on grounds of their sexual orientation gender identity. Within and year we had seen about 300 clients but were still struggling with one problem; visibility.

These conversations and a hundred others with queers, allies, families, civil society, and members of the judiciary, legislators, homophobes, our clients and many others conceived and later birthed what is now the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission.

In a country like Kenya, with restrictive and oppressive laws as well as pervasive homophobia in the public sphere, visibility came with a price. The more we occupied public space the more targeted we became. It did not help matters when in 2013 we sued the Kenyan government for denying us legal registration. We quickly had to find a way to be effective while mitigating our vulnerability. Online presence allowed us just that. We remained visible therefore accessible to our clients while at the same time shielding ourselves from physical confrontation and attacks from our antagonists. NGLHRC to this day boasts of active online engagement with our constituents within our social media sites and website.

Personally, my fascination with the digital world keeps growing with my activism. I realised quite early the importance of the anonymity that social media allowed LGBTIQ persons in Kenya. Almost everyone I know has pseudo social media accounts. On these accounts, queers ironically get to live their truths. They get to participate in a space that they are unable or unwilling to engage with physically. While queer organizing may inadvertently require ‘outing’ of oneself, online activism presents a much safer space for contribution. The internet also unfortunately creates space for routine targeting and harassment of queer folk. Moreover, about fifty percent of my clients are victims of blackmail, extortion assault having being lured from gay dating apps. There is very little I can do for my clients who are mostly unwilling to report these crimes. On rare cases where these are reported, the clients risk arbitrary arrest and detention. The Kenyan police are also unwilling to follow up on such cases choosing instead to collaborate with the blackmailers and earn a percentage of the payoff.

Moreover, about fifty percent of my clients are victims of blackmail, extortion assault having being lured from gay dating apps. There is very little I can do for my clients who are mostly unwilling to report these crimes.

To remedy this my organization has teamed up with one of the popular dating sites to include a security pop-up for users within hotspots for blackmail in Kenya. The pop-up page advises of the risk of blackmail, offers security tips and provides a hotline number to contact in case of emergencies.

Outside of my legal work, I curate Because Womxn, a collective of fierce lesbian, bisexual and queer feminists who meet once every month to discuss and design solutions for issues pertaining to queer citizenry in Kenya. The collective draws on feminist theory and practice in challenging systems that oppress LBQ women and builds on the resilience of its constituents through conversation, practices of wellness and self-defense, advocacy, learning and solidarity. BW capitalizes on social media for mobilization, consciousness raising and resistance. In 2016 we ran the #dearqueerwomxn campaign agitating for an end to intimate partner and sexual violence, building self-esteem and sisterhood within LBQ women. The response was huge with participation from the United States, South Africa and the MENA region.

In 2016 we ran the #dearqueerwomxn campaign agitating for an end to intimate partner and sexual violence, building self-esteem and sisterhood within LBQ women. The response was huge with participation from the United States, South Africa and the MENA region.

More and more I see the need to grow my digital activism as well as that of the communities we serve. With the opportunities the internet provides, we would be remiss if our activisms did not hinge on the beneficial elements of the space. My participation in the Making a Feminist Internet gathering this October reinforced this notion.

Feminists all over the world were working towards making the internet safe, accessible and meaningful for women and queer persons the world over. I shared the space with badass warrior women who had found effective solutions for their communities relying on tech to amplify their work. I stood in awe of those who had used online spaces to challenge governments for accountability, to educate communities, to demand for services, to protect vulnerable communities and problematize spaces and notions. The meeting expanded my thinking around ownership and transacting in knowledge, discourse as a site of activism as well as ensuring the digital safety of queer communities.

I shared the space with badass warrior women who had found effective solutions for their communities relying on tech to amplify their work. I stood in awe of those who had used online spaces to challenge governments for accountability, to educate communities, to demand for services, to protect vulnerable communities and problematize spaces and notions.

I committed to applying the feminist principles of the internet in both my work and personal interactions. I also committed to ensuring that I shared knowledge to the best of my abilities with the communities that I exist in and serve.

In my work, I have learnt the importance monitoring the efforts of anti-equality lobby and utilizing resources available in minimizing their effects. More and more Kenyans are seeing the anti equality lobby for what it is and recognize their incoherent thought and propagandistic rhetoric. Major players are the religious councils particularly the Christians and Muslims. These two sit on opposing sides on most public debates and only join fronts when addressing ‘threats to the African family unit and morality’ loosely interpreted to mean any form of sexual or gender non-conformity. Also on the list are State and elected officials who go out of their way to ensure that LGBTIQ persons are denied access to the full range of rights guaranteed in the Kenyan constitution. One notorious character is the current head of the Kenya Film Classification Board who has utilized social media to push untruths and messages of hate against queer Kenyans. He has banned several artistic productions such as films and music videos with an LGBTIQ theme or character. He continues to act ultra vires to disrupt any form of LGBTIQ social organizing that comes to his attention. Kenyan politicians like many of their peers across the continent play on the pervasive homophobia in the country to gain popularity as leaders who are protecting public morality.

Religious councils, both Christian and Muslim, sit on opposing sides on most public debates and only join fronts when addressing ‘threats to the African family unit and morality’ loosely interpreted to mean any form of sexual or gender non-conformity.

The digital space provides an avenue for communities like mine to poke holes into the propaganda that has been fed to the public regarding our sexualities. We have learnt to challenge myths with facts, document stories to counter erasure and to maintain visibility as a community both offline and online. Personally, I enjoy trolling the social media pages of hatemongers and flooding them with messages of love and information about gender and sexuality. I have rallied with friends to occupy online spaces and shut down sexism, homophobia and misogyny within organizing/community spaces and in public spaces. I have learnt that as much as the internet has been a site for oppression for communities like mine, I have the ability to use it as a tool not only to right the wrongs but to design a better future for my community.

The digital space provides an avenue for communities like mine to poke holes into the propaganda that has been fed to the public regarding our sexualities. We have learnt to challenge myths with facts, document stories to counter erasure and to maintain visibility as a community both offline and online.

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