Laughter, solidarity, and conviviality were in the air at a quietly remarkable event in a Nairobi hotel on February 12. Yet the subject matter discussed at the event was anything but light: depression and suicide, public stripping and rape. The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) was presenting its new report, “Research on the Lived Realities of Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Women in Kenya.”
The report addresses the often overlooked experiences of queer women. In much human rights reporting, violations against queer women, which often occur in the private sphere of the home, are overshadowed by violations in the public sphere. And our ears are attuned to the loudest voices – usually, men’s – while women too frequently suffer human rights abuses in silence. The women of GALCK, trading in trust built among LBQ communities, transcended those barriers and elevated the voices of Kenyan women, bringing their experiences front and center.
Many of the stories center around family, including abuse when families discover queer women’s sexuality. Rose, in Kisumu, described how her brother literally threw her out of the house, grabbing her by the throat and accusing her of being Satanic. Another brother threatened to turn her in to the police. Crimes as grave as rape may also take place in the family sanctum: in a 2012 case, a woman committed suicide “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.”
Meanwhile, LBQ women cope with familial and societal pressures around creating their own families. Some are pushed into marriage with men. Others struggle to find creative ways to bear or raise children with their female partners in a context in which adoption is prohibited by law to anyone who is “a homosexual,” and medically-supported artificial insemination is out of economic reach for most women.
The more public abuses tend to be tied to social policing of rigid gender norms in Kenya, and GALCK found that women who are “masculine presenting” are most at risk of violence. So are women living “in lower middle class and lower class neighborhoods where people interact more intensively with each other than in high-class areas, and where social ties are geared more towards cohesion and control.” The story of Leila, a butch lesbian, in the Kasarani neighborhood of Nairobi, is illustrative. She was publicly stripped by motorcycle taxi (“boda boda”) drivers while walking to school–an abuse that has also been inflicted on straight women deemed to be dressed inappropriately, including women wearing trousers or short skirts. Leila said:
“I found the motorists at the stage, they were always there, and some were even my friends. I knew their faces and would sometimes say hi as I passed them. That day they just started shouting at me, asking if I was a boy or girl…they were many…they surrounded me and started grabbing me and tearing [off] my clothes. They were laughing. They tore off my shirt and were pulling my trousers….This happened in broad daylight.”
One impact of rights abuses among LBQ women is high levels of “stress-related problems, such as depression, insomnia and anxiety.” GALCK found that that as a result of accumulated stress and depression, “a large part of ‘lesbian culture’ in the larger cities in Kenya consists of heavy drinking and drug abuse.” Mental health and substance abuse services are scarce and difficult to access for all Kenyans, and LBQ women face the additional burden of identifying the rare providers who will help them without judging their sexuality or gender identity.
Given the magnitude of challenges facing LBQ women, why was the report launch such an unambiguously positive event? Because the report, ultimately, constitutes a call to action – not to the Kenyan government, in this case, but to the LBQ community itself: to organize, mobilize, educate, provide health and legal services, and address queer women’s needs. And as dozens of queer women listened and nodded and cheered and hugged, it was clear that the community was out in full force, ready to address these challenges.