Last edited: February 05, 2005

Gays Step into Light

Society, February 5, 2005
The Standard Group
I & M Building, Kenyatta Avenue,
P.O Box 30080, 00100 GPO, Nairobi-Kenya.
Tel: +254 20 3222111, Fax: +254 20 214467.

In a society where they are regarded as Pariahs, homosexuals lead quiet and secretive lives. But as Benson Kimathi found out, those who have given up on changing their sexual orientation are steadily beginning to come out of the closet. Will they be accepted? Johnny Mbuthia and Nicholas Omusatsa Soft-spoken Nicholas Omusatsa* is nervous as he reaches for his cell phone. He dials a number and soon, he is talking to his marriage partner.

“How far away are you, dear?” asks the 26-year-old accountant. He is greeted by a cheerful voice on the other end. Soon, the other man arrives. Like Nicholas, he is chocolate-skinned, of average build and modest height. Initially nervous, Johnny Mbuthia*, sits next to Nicholas. For a moment, the men stare into each other’s eyes. Each wears a wedding ring on which is engraved the other’s name.

A smile playing on his lips, Nicholas now strokes Mbuthia’s cheek. “When did you develop this?” He is referring to a small bump on Mbuthia’s face. Nicholas’ touch is gentle. As he talks, his voice goes down a few notes; he is almost whispering, and his searching eyes half closed with affection. On his part, Mbuthia appears uneasy. Is it self-consciousness, or is it that Mbuthia’s stolid, almost expressionless face is a pointer to his male role in the relationship?

Cult-like networks

The relationship between Nicholas and Mbuthia is nothing but an index case, seemingly isolated, but a tip of the iceberg. Society abounds with gay relationships, which, for a long time now, have mainly been kept secret.

The actual number of homosexuals is hard to tell; statistics, especially locally, are hard to come by. Going by a study done by UNAids and the World Health Organisation on HIV/Aids, about 10 per cent of adults who contract HIV through unprotected sex are gay.

“My feeling is that this is a gross underestimation,” says Bernard, a public health official, who is also coordinator of a gay programme at a health facility in Nairobi.

“Here, men having sex with men (or MSMs, as he calls them) cannot go public. It is illegal in Kenya. And it is socially unacceptable.”

Bernard says that owing to the social persecution that MSMs endure, many unwillingly get into heterosexual marriage and even have children. It is from the safety of the legitimate institution of family that these men then quietly run gay relationships. Any study that does not take into account these socially heterosexual gays, he stresses, is flawed.

The University of Nairobi’s Institute of African Studies, in conjunction with the National Aids and STD Control Programme (Nascop), is currently conducting a joint study whose preliminary results they will not release, yet.

The studies notwithstanding, sexual contact between males remains criminal in Kenya. Says Section 165 of the Penal Code: “Any male person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male person, whether in public or private, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for five years, with or without corporal punishment.”

Being an ostracised sexual minority, homosexuals must remain discreet.

Kamau, another self-confessed gay, is at first willing to talk but then loses his nerve and declines to give an interview. Makori, another homosexual, explains that he heads a network of gays. Arriving from Mombasa, where he says he has been attending a gay conference, this man has his hair curled and treated. His mannerisms and disposition are curiously feminine. Suspicious and passive-aggressive, Makori openly refers to his gay partner as “my husband”, and to his relationship as “my marriage.”

According to Makori, gays in Kenya are beginning to gang up into communities. Already, Nicholas’s gay partner, Johnny Mbuthia, runs a website,, which he started mid last year. “When I started working in 1999, life was very lonely for me,” explains Mbuthia. “There was no way I could meet other gay people.”

Describing the creation of a heterosexual relationship as easy, he asks, “How do you approach another gay? Do you walk to the first man you meet and say, ‘Hey, I am gay, can we be partners?’”

Years of loneliness

It was after four years of loneliness that Mbuthia came up with the idea of a web site. Through the platform, he would not only reach potential mates, but he would give other gays easier access to their kind. In addition, Mbuthia’s website would provide invaluable means through which homosexuals around the country would empower themselves. “And it would create social consciousness,” he says. What’s more, the site would provide information about HIV/Aids to gays, while remaining partly accessible to the general public. To accord gay members anonymity, they do not use real names on the site. “Members do not use their primary e-mail addresses,” explains Mbuthia. Much of the site is password-protected.

How effective are local gay communities? Insofar as linking homosexuals to potential mates is concerned, the networks have made their mark. Public health officer Bernard, however, explains that homosexuals in Kenya do not have anything that even closely resembles a community. “Here, MSMs only form networks for purposes of locating potential sex partners,” he says. “A true community would meet not just for sex, but also to lobby and discuss welfare issues.”

Rough journey

Nicholas had his first forbidden desire at the age of 12. At the time a Standard Six pupil, he had a crush on his science teacher – a male in his late 20s. “I fancied him,” recalls Nicholas. “I loved him from the bottom of my heart, and I was sexually attracted to him.”

As far as Nicholas knew, this teacher was heterosexual and married, which ruled out any chance that the teacher would ever reciprocate the lad’s adoration. To the boy, female teachers and classmates appeared plain and unexciting. In spite of affectionate looks he may have received from girls, Nicholas had zero interest in the opposite sex.

“I cannot say I knew I was going to be gay,” says the now grown man, who had his first sexual experience with a male classmate that same year. He remembers how, much later, he gave in to peer pressure and befriended a girl. He says that, to onlookers, it all must have looked great. The trouble was that, if a handsome man passed by while Nicholas was in the company of his phoney date, his attention inevitably got sidetracked to the man. “I would stop to comment about how good-looking this man was,” he remembers. The impulsive reaction of his female companion was to frown. What was the matter with Nicholas!

Giving in further to social pressures, Nicholas even attempted sexual contact with his female friend. He says this was the most absurd thing he ever tried: the chemistry was zero.

Having endured seven months of boredom, throughout which he had sustained the relationship by pretence, Nicholas confronted his date. He says getting rid of her wasn’t easy, but he did it. “That was the first and last relationship I tried to have with a woman.”

For gays, he says, it is difficult to get a partner, “so it helps to attend gay-friendly clubs.” And dating is no different for homosexuals. “But it is easier. You do not need to hide; people assume you are just friends.”

About his relationship with Mbuthia, Nicholas says, “We share a house. Everybody thinks we are brothers.” In the experience of Mbuthia and Nicholas, a gay couple must confront the battery of emotions that every other relationship must confront. There are happy, romantic moments that are awash with kisses and cuddling, just as there are sad times. Infidelity, jealousies and incompatibility are any gay couple’s nightmare.

One of two brothers raised by a single mother, Nicholas says his relatives do not know about his sexual orientation. “But I think my grandmother suspects. “Whenever I go home, I take Mbuthia with me.” He has told his mother more than once not to expect him to marry (a woman), ever. One day, he says, he will reveal his true sexual identity to his family. “It won’t be easy. But I can’t change who I am.”

Restrained partner

Although Nicholas does most of the talking during the interview, his partner silently dominates him. Excessively cautious, the 32-year-old Mbuthia still recalls bitterly that his gay status cost him his job with a Roman Catholic institution.

Who heads the relationship between Mbuthia and Nicholas? Mbuthia warns that it would be inaccurate to use the paradigm of a normal marriage in trying to understand a gay relationship. But he is six years older than Nicholas, and appears to have the final word during arguments. About who owns what in the couple’s house, Mbuthia says it is not easy to tell. Nicholas interjects: “If one of us buys something, it becomes ours.”

When he left primary school, Mbuthia joined junior seminary at the behest of his parents. But the young man’s decision to enter the major (college-level) seminary was fully his. He says his years in junior seminary taught him a great lesson: that it’s easier to land a mate and to run a gay relationship in a seminary than in the outside world.

Life for Mbuthia has been no bed of roses. If it were possible to change his sexual identity, he stresses, “I would already have changed. But there are no drugs to change from a homosexual to a straight person.” It has been his experience that society erroneously believes homosexuality to be a perversion that gays can easily change. “If it is easy for a blind person to change and start seeing, then it is equally easy for a homosexual to change?” For the ‘straight’, Mbuthia explains, life is easier, given the myriad ready friends and the immediate social acceptance. “Gay life can be painfully lonely.”

Does he and his marriage partner, Nicholas, ever hope to have children? Mbuthia says it is possible to arrange with a woman to have a child. “But getting married for the sake of children is not advisable. I have seen gays do it.” Sometimes, he adds, children come to learn of their father’s departure from the norm. “As they get older, their confusion may turn into resentment.” Nicholas chips in: “If you need a child badly, what you do is look for a lesbian who also wants a child.” This way, one can safely become a father without risking having a child with a mother “who may insist on moving in with you”.

*Some names have been changed for legal reasons

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