Learning how to be an LGBTQ+ ally in conservative Kenyan society

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During my first week at an all girls’ high school in Kenya, the dorm matrons and teachers warned us about lesbianism. They made it clear that the worst thing a student could be, or even be suspected of being, was a lesbian, and that LGBTQ+ students could, and had been, suspended and expelled due to their sexuality. They also made us wary of older girls who “recruited” naive first-formers into their “lesbian circles.”

Strict, strange rules accompanied these warnings. Should a student close the mustard curtains that closed our rooms’ doorways while a female guest was visiting, they were immediately a subject of suspicion. Sharing a bed with a friend was sacrilegious — God forbid you hold a sleepover. Our dorm matrons, who were women in their 50s, enforced these rules. Sometimes our matron would hold night-long interrogations with students she suspected of being lesbians. The interrogations would go on night after night for weeks in her tiny office. If any suspicions were confirmed beneath her low-hanging bulb, expulsions were soon to follow.

On Sundays, our church’s preacher would tell us about how homosexuality was a demonic spirit — one that was very hard to pray out. He warned us, therefore, not to “experiment” with any lesbian activities. After his fiery sermons, the preacher always offered conversion prayers for anyone who was struggling with this demon.

Nobody at my school questioned these attitudes and actions because it was consistent with the culture in which we grew up. Many of us came from conservative Kenyan households in which sexuality, especially homosexuality, were taboo topics that adults only whispered about if they discussed them at all. While there are no laws that blatantly incriminate homosexuality, same-sex marriage is not legally recognised. Kenya is also generally quite socially hostile to members of the LGBTQ+ community. There are very few LGBTQ-friendly health care centers, and queer people are targets for hate crimes and discrimination. These realities extend to Kenyan media; the Kenya Film Classification Board promotes erasure of queer narratives by banning the screening of any content that depicts homosexuality. Even Rafiki, a film with queer themes that was the first Kenyan movie to be nominated for an award at the Cannes Film Festival, was not spared from this ban.

I didn’t meet and interact with openly queer people until after I graduated from high school. I became friends with two classmates at my school who identified as gay. We instantly bonded over the common fact that we were all international students trying to find our way in a new country. As our friendship grew, they eventually came out to me. At first, I was confused. All my life I had been taught that homosexuality was evil, but these gay men were the complete opposite of the ugly depiction my school, church, and culture had painted in my mind. I wanted to ask them both so many questions that were buzzing in my brain, but was scared to because I did not want to offend them.

Eventually, however, I mustered the courage to ask my friends these questions. How did they navigate our conservative society as gay men? Were their families aware of their sexuality? I was lucky enough to have friends who were willing to answer my questions, and even tell me when a question I asked was offensive — like asking who plays a masculine or feminine role in a homosexual relationship. When I asked this, my friend told me how wrong it was to apply heteronormative gender roles to everyone.

Through these friendships, I learned how to grow into allyship. By  “grow into,” I mean that I went from learning about the queer experience to supporting gay rights and eventually acting on that conviction by being an LGBTQ+ ally. The process of growing into allyship involved three main stages.

First, I became more aware of my privilege as a straight person in a conservative society. For instance, I do not have to worry about being disowned by my family, arrested, or even killed because of my sexuality. I can also use these very privileges to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in ways as simple as calling out a relative who uses a derogatory term, starting an allies club at my school, or joining a pro-LGBTQIA march. Personally, I am helping set up the first allies club at my college. It is going to be a tough journey given how conservative our student body, not to mention the larger community, is. But I am willing to put in the work to create a safe space for queer people on campus.

Second, I learned to be more empathetic to my queer peers. Some of my queer friends keep secret social media accounts so they can have spaces where they can truly be themselves, and I follow and support those accounts. I also listen to their struggle to negotiate the conflict between the religion in which they were raised in their sexuality. For example, one friend decided to be celibate because he felt actually having  same-sex relations would be more sinful than identifying as gay, while another mentally prepares herself for the day her family will learn about her sexuality and inevitably disown her.

Lastly, I had to challenge myself to unlearn everything I had been previously taught about sexuality, and actively sought knowledge about the LGBTQ+ experience. I respectfully asked queer people questions about their lives, but also didn’t expect queer people to do the labor of educating me at their expense. I found resources online, like the organization Equality for Her’s free learning kits about gender and sexuality. In the 21st century, there is absolutely no excuse for ignorance.

Of course, I am still learning and growing into my allyship. While supporting queer people, I remind myself to be careful not to take over their narratives, but rather to help amplify their voices and help create safe spaces where they can speak for themselves. Similarly, more allies need to challenge homophobia and promote inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community in conservative societies. We need to remember that we are not free unless all members of our societies are free.

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Garnett Achieng’
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