Searching for Love Where Being Gay Is a Crime

In Kenya, gay men can be persecuted but that does not keep them standing still.


NAIROBI, Kenya, May 5, 2008 -- With all the attention the political strife and violence have brought Kenya this year, most probably don't think of its capital city as a party town. But Nairobi is considered one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa.

Kenyans and ex-pats alike pour into numerous clubs for all-night dancing to the latest American, reggae and African hits, as well as to the city's wide array of upscale bars that host karaoke nights and live bands.

Nairobi has its share of dive bars, where local Kenyans hang out discussing the latest politics. Many places can be found easily by tourists, and, as in most African cities, spots frequented by "ladies of the night."

But what this modern, urban city lacks is a gay club.

"It's straight clubs and mixed clubs," said Steve, a 37-year-old gay Kenyan who did not want to give his real name, but who talked to ABC News over a couple of drinks at a bar he described as not too open to homosexuals. He said he likes the nightspot because of the amazing live band that plays.

"That level of segregation isn't [here], but there are 'gayer' clubs," he said.

In Kenya, homosexuality isn't just socially unacceptable -- it's illegal.

The penalty for homosexual acts for men is seven years in prison. But openly gay men, referred to as "queens," are more likely to be beaten by homophobic Kenyans than arrested.

"I know someone who had a beer bottle shoved up his a--," Steve said.

Despite the consequences, there is still a substantial gay population in Nairobi. It's hard to find exact numbers, but there are enough that they have now founded an organization called the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. Steve is a member.

Though they are demanding their rights, group members are forced to "walk a fine line," said Steve, who worries about getting arrested. The group is trying to force the government to recognize the rights of homosexuals without causing a backlash.

"It's a bit like pushing out a boat without having a lifesaver," he said.

Still, they're making progress. Homosexuals are rarely arrested, and Steve said he expects the laws will change in the next few years, but "it's a process."

Gay Kenyans walk the same line in the club scene. There are clubs that are known to be "gay friendly." Gypsies, for example, is sometimes referred to as Kenya's most closeted gay club. Other clubs have certain nights when the gay community knows it is welcome.

But only to a point, according to 21-year-old Paul, who, like Steve, does not want to give his real name. Paul likes a club called Tacos. He and his gay friends are allowed in "[depending] on the mood of the management," he said.

And even at these "gayer" clubs, displaying affection openly is a big no-no. "You can hug and you can dance together," Paul said, "but no kissing, provocatively touching each other or being romantic."

The fact that a few clubs let in homosexuals is a huge sign of progress, said Steve, who remembers how, 15 years ago when he first came out, gays in Kenya used to meet one another under far different circumstances.

"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."

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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