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Why The Closet Remains The Safest Option

As part of the build-up to June’s Safer To Be Me Symposium, we are proud to be sharing our Safer To Be Me: Global Voices blog series, showcasing LGBTQ+ themes from around the globe, written by ReportOUT volunteers. This week we travel to Kenya to hear from ReportOUT Human Rights Researcher, Kalori, on the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals and how intersectional prejudice within the community can exacerbate the fear of venturing out of the closet.

Intersectional Discrimination Against the Kenyan LGBTQ+ Communtiy

The word discrimination elicits a visceral and frigid reaction from LGBTQ+ persons globally. Experientially, discrimination is a present reality that many sexual and gender minorities have experienced in their lives at one moment or another. For many, it means an escapable form of prejudice which can be escaped by staying in the closet and conforming to social expectations. Despite the efforts of the LGBTQ+ community to promote equality, acceptance, and inclusiveness, members of our community are still subject to discrimination from outside and from within their community. As many of us can testify in Kenya, discrimination can have serious consequences, including emotional distress, decreased self-esteem, and even physical harm. Intersectional discrimination, the idea that multiple grounds and forms of discrimination sometimes interact together, usually in negative synergy, exacerbates the challenges that the LGBT+ community in Kenya faces even further. Laws Designed to Persecute Not Protect It should be noted that great strides have been made towards recognizing LGBTQI+ rights globally but, in contrast, Kenya and indeed much of Africa still criminalize same-sex conduct and fail to protect LGBTQ+ persons against discrimination. Despite Kenya’s Constitution guaranteeing the right to equality and freedom from discrimination (Under Article 27), Kenya’s Penal Code explicitly prohibits and makes punishable same-sex conduct (Section 162 of the Kenyan Penal Code).

Universally, instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights espouse equality for all humanity but such instruments offer little solace for LGBTQ+ communities because they often function as discretionary guidelines rather than regulations that states may follow and countries hostile to our community simply ignore them.

As a result, Kenyan law forms an overt form of discrimination. Notably, discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities is rife in much of the world; most countries have no LGBT+ protections against discrimination at all. The Importance of Legal Protection Legal protection for the LGBTQ+ community would provide a layer of recourse when any one of us is harmed or wronged. It means standing a chance at receiving adequate healthcare, job opportunities and physical safety. In early 2022, Sheila, a 25-year-old Kenyan lesbian was sexually assaulted and murdered in her home. Human Rights Watch reported that Kenyan police allegedly failed to adequately respond to or investigate the crime because of Lumumba’s sexual orientation.

Coalesced with draconian laws neither recognizing nor criminalizing same-sex relations, the absence of legal protections in Kenya provides a climate for discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people. Consequently, and horrifically, violence is often justified in the name of law enforcement.

Human Rights Watch notes that Kenyan police often attack members of the LGBTQ+ community unjustifiably. The lack of legal protections is disarming as it leaves many LGBTQ+ persons vulnerable to attack from members of society on mere suspicion of their sexuality. Likewise, the legal protection and recognition we crave would protect our freedom of expression.

Most notably, Kenyan transgender activist Audrey Mbugua succeeded in a case to change her legal name after transitioning from male to female. Before her name change, she was severely denied social services because of her gender and even attempted suicide arising from the stress associated with a hostile bureaucracy and legal system. With the legal recognition of her name, Audrey could access social services as her real self, even whilst continuing to face discrimination more broadly.

Turning On Ourselves Whilst Kenyan society remains hostile to LGBTQ+ communities, we should not pretend that intersectional prejudice does not exist within our own communities. I can speak to this from my own experience. One of the primary forms of discrimination I have witnessed within the LGBTQ+ community is based on gender identity. Transgender and non-binary individuals often face discrimination from within the LGBTQ+ community from individuals who do not understand or accept their identity. This can manifest as transphobia, a fear and hatred of individuals who are transgender or non-binary. Transphobia can take many forms, such as verbal abuse, physical violence, and exclusion from LGBTQ+ spaces and events (Logan Graves, 2018). Transgender individuals may also experience discrimination when seeking healthcare, as they may face barriers to accessing gender-affirming medical care. Another form of discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community is based on sexual orientation. For example, bisexual individuals may face discrimination from both heterosexuals and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some members of the LGBTQ+ community may view bisexual individuals as indecisive or as not being "truly gay." This can lead to exclusion and discrimination within the community, even in situations where bisexual individuals are actively working to promote LGBTQ+ rights and equality. Additionally, discrimination can be based on race and ethnicity. People of colour who are LGBTQ+ may face a unique set of challenges, including racism from both straight and LGBTQ+ communities. This can lead to feelings of isolation, and make it more difficult for individuals to find safe and supportive spaces within the LGBTQ+ community. Discrimination based on age is also a concern within the LGBTQ+ community. Older individuals may face ageism or discrimination based on their age. This can result in exclusion from LGBTQ+ spaces and events and a lack of support and resources. Older LGBTQ+ individuals may also face difficulty accessing healthcare, particularly if they have health problems that are common with age. In his blog on ageism, Robert Espinoza notes how older gay men feel excluded from the community when younger generations brush them aside. Quite often, these forms of discrimination are masked as sexual or romantic preferences. Yet, in my opinion, these represent microcosmic reflections of discrimination that we must face up to. These illustrations of discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya are not exhaustive but emblematic of social culture within LGBTQ+ circles.

Compounded with the external forces, this cocktail of discrimination does nothing but diminish the well-being of LGBT+ persons in Kenya.

A Path Towards Healing

As Barbara Gittings states:

“Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”

This highlights the need for legal and cultural reforms to alleviate discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya and globally. The fight for legal protection from discrimination marches on in Kenya through Repeal 162, a concerted effort by civil society to repeal the laws which allow the criminalization of same-sex conduct in Kenya. Though legal advocacy may form the foundations of legal protections for LGBTQ+ persons in Kenya, other forms of social reform are needed.

I firmly believe that we must first acknowledge cognitive and intrinsically groomed biases (personally and as a community) and actively seeking to reduce them creates a safe space of acceptance for LGBT+ persons still in the closet. The intersectionality of legal, social, economic, and cultural forms of discrimination makes life in Kenya for the LGBTQ+ community a constant flow of risk and uncertainty. Understandably, the relative security of keeping sexual orientation or gender expression concealed often outweighs the freedom of coming out of the closet. Nevertheless, the seminal reality is that – as members of the LGBTQ+ community - sometimes perpetuate discrimination against each other. This represents Kenya in microcosm and reflects how we need to confront our own biases to embark upon the path of healing and self-acceptance. Bibliography

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