Searching for Love Where Being Gay Is a Crime

"You used to go to the Stanley Hotel bar and wear a pink shirt," he said. It was a secret code to let others know you were gay and available. At that time, under the dictatorship of President Daniel Arap Moi, the threat of arrest was much greater.

"The '90s gay scene was symptomatic of everything that was wrong with this country," he said. "The scene was subdued because people were scared of eavesdropping by the regime."

The one exception to homosexual intolerance was, and continues to be, sex tourism. For several years during the Moi regime, there was a club in downtown Nairobi, frequented by British sailors and ex-pats, Steve said, where men could pick up other men, often male prostitutes.

In the coastal town of Mombasa, male prostitution continues to be part of the tourism trade without much scrutiny from the government -- or even the local community. "If you have money in this country you can do whatever you want," Steve said.

But, he added, the history and prevalence of male sex tourism in Kenya has only added to the country's general intolerance of homosexuality.

"It's a perversion of being gay," one that only confirms the idea homosexuality is "dirty" and "unnatural," Steve said.

Even within Kenya's gay community, the idea that homosexuality is fundamentally wrong continues to exist.

Walk into Gypsies and you will find many men socializing and dancing, but several simply leaning against the walls, trying not to look too "gay," Paul said.

"If you go to a club where there are too many gays, you have to pretend you're straight," he said. "I wouldn't want my parents or my brother to find out I was at a gay club."

Paul said his generation worries more about the social consequences of being openly gay than about the government and law enforcement.

"Nowadays the government knows these things exist," he said. "There are ministers and members of parliament who are gay."

Staying Low Key in Public and With Family

Paul's family refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality. Like many young gay men in Nairobi, he is not from the city, but lives in Meru, an area of Eastern Kenya that is likewise intolerant of homosexuality, Paul said.

"My father would say 'This is not my son' if he found out," Paul said. "I am forced to have girlfriends. … I have a girlfriend in Meru now."

Once or twice a month Paul makes a trip to Nairobi, where he feels free to be himself and go to clubs and bars to meet other gay men. Still, he must be careful not to tip off someone who may know a member of his family. Even the Stanley Hotel pink shirt code still exists today, he said, though now the shirt color is yellow.

Steve, who is from Nairobi, has come out to his family, which is very rare in the homosexual community.

"Most people have no choice in leading a double life," he said. "I was very lucky. But still in the 15 years I've been out I've faced things that sometimes make me think if I could, I might have done things differently and not been quite so out."

Steve hopes Nairobi will be as open to gays as other cosmopolitan cities, such as Johannesburg in South Africa, within the next five to 10 years.

The progress made so far is a combination of Kenyan attitudes evolving and the gay community slowly coming out of the shadows and banding together.

"You can't spend your whole life obsessing about what you can do or can't do," Steve said. "You have to start to concentrate on being who you are."

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