You Can’t (Yet) Sit with Us: LGBTQI+ Edition

An Essay

by Nkateko Masinga

“I remember the moment clearly, scanning the room with anticipation and then taking a seat once I found the LGBTI+ Rights table. It was Day 1 of the 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit and we were attending discussion meetups for topics that we had signed up for.

It was not long before my excitement faded. Everyone at the LGBTI+ table saw it within minutes: A table nearby labelled Human Rights. Someone pointed, and we nodded. We were all taken aback by this clear distinction and it became an easy yet unnerving icebreaker for the discussion that ensued: Are LGBTI Rights not Human Rights? Are Human Rights not inclusive of LGBTI Rights? 

Joe Gerstandt, a leader who helps organizations understand diversity and inclusion, once said the following: “If you do not intentionally, deliberately and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude.” It was disturbingly obvious: We had a table to ourselves, not a seat at the bigger table where the rights of all humans were being discussed.”

— An excerpt from an article I wrote about LGBTI+ inclusion for the Mandela Washington Fellowship South African Regional Advisory Board’s December 2018 newsletter.

I have been in Kenya since the 12th of May 2019. This is a sentence I have written several times to begin an essay, for my words to bear witness to what my body has encountered since that day. I am grateful to be here, grateful that I get to travel often and see parts of the world I have previously only dreamed of. According to my calendar, I have now been here for a month and two weeks, longer than I’ve been in any African country besides my home, South Africa. I am proud of myself. I have recovered from many aspects that contributed to the initial culture shock: the language barrier, food differences, inconsistent weather patterns (Kenya’s rainy season is meant to begin in April each year but the 2019 rains were delayed until June due to climate change) and more. What I am yet to recover from is the difficulty that comes with being queer in this country. 

Three weeks into this trip, I attended a drag show organised with the support of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) in Nairobi. It was a breath-taking event, attended by the most beautiful people I have seen since my arrival here, but it happened a week after the Kenyan High Court ruling declaring same-sex relations illegal here, and I needed constant reassurance that it was safe to be there. As a straight-presenting woman, the irony of this does not escape me: I am “safe” anywhere, provided I play the part that society has given me. According to the friends I expressed my fears to at the show, we were all “safe” in principle: “Only the actual act is punishable by law. They can’t arrest you unless they catch you in the act.” A person who I met at the show, who has now become one of my closest friends in Kenya, showed me that things are different in practice. This friend, who I shall refer to as V for the purposes of this essay, expressed the fear of being stripped and beaten on the streets of Nairobi one day as we walked towards the matatu / bus stage on Tom Mboya street. I was confused by this and asked why anyone would do that to him, or anyone for that matter. His response was heart-breaking: “Because people want to know what I am, and the worst of them will do anything to appease their curiosity.” 

As a transgender man who is yet to transition, V often deals with people misgendering him (intentionally or unintentionally) and using she/her pronouns to refer to him. He also deals with people (mostly men) thinking his gender identity and expression is a phase that he can be coaxed out of. I have been a witness to most of these scenarios with V and now know that his fears are within reason: One day we walked into a matatu together and took a seat right at the back. Less than five minutes after we had entered, two men started looking at us and laughing. I felt uncomfortable but said nothing. V grabbed my hand and whispered to me that we were getting off the bus. I got up and we walked out. Later, he explained that those men had been staring at us at the stage while we waited, long before we stepped into the bus. He thought that they would eventually leave us alone but the incident inside the bus proved otherwise. 

When I found out that this month’s issue of Odd Magazine would be dealing with human rights, I knew I wanted to talk about the rights of the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya and how individuals in marginalised groups are still fighting for seats at the main table, everywhere, every day. What society has opted to do, as the introduction to my essay demonstrates, is to give us small side tables where we can talk amongst ourselves. The discussions at these tables rarely yield change; here, we are preaching to the converted. A few weeks ago, V registered an organisation that helps homeless and vulnerable queer youth in Nairobi. I am proud to know him and to witness his inspiring journey. To celebrate, I have promised him a copy of “Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph” by my friend and fellow Mandela Washington Fellowship alumnus, Landa Mabenge, and I plan to make good on that promise soon. In the meantime, we will continue to dodge glances at bus stages and wait to be seated in places where we are not unwelcome guests.