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?”
But this simple wish seems a long way from coming true. Men who have sex with men (MSM) 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 means that the health of MSM is at risk. Better health for vulnerable groups is something that even the Kenyan government advocates.
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 most at risk groups. In 2008 they made up 15.2% of new HIV infections.
Serving those at risk
But there are few services provided for MSM. Ishtar is a member of the Kenya AIDS NGO consortium (KANCO) – a linking organisation of the Alliance. Ishtar are an MSM health and social wellbeing organisation. 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 MSM health services 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.
Homophobia: the effect of poverty and religion
Poverty has an important effect on MSM 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.”
Poverty also drives men into sex work. Steven 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.”