Gays Step into Light
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
“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?
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
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
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
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
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, www.gaykenya.com, 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.”
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.”
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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