In secret hideaways and temporary homes, LGBT refugees are being forced – once again – to hide their true selves instead of walking out into the world with pride.
Kenya has become a safe haven for those fleeing war and famine in neighbouring states. But in secret hideaways and temporary homes, LGBT refugees are being forced – once again – to hide their true selves instead of walking out into the world with pride.
On a dusty road far from Nairobi’s city centre, a dozen young people – teens and twenty-somethings – live cooped up in a thinly furnished house. They take turns cooking, cleaning.
When a house meeting is called, bodies swiftly fill the only two sofas. They chat about chores and about who hasn’t paid rent. They might seem like one big family, except for the fact that they’re all trying to escape.
“Time for netball!” yells a young man named Nelson one afternoon, as a dozen housemates file out the door into a small concrete backyard. They stand in line and take turns throwing a ball toward a thin metal rim elevated high on a wooden pole. A de facto “coach” retrieves the netball and throws it to the next in line.
“They even went to Mombasa for a tournament – with Kenyans,” says Nelson, taking out his phone to show me photos of the team on the beach near Kenya’s port city. Netball is the refugees’ only real physical activity. Most of the day they can do nothing but lie about the house. “They suffer from boredom,” says Nelson.
Nelson and his housemates are some of Africa’s LGBT refugees – people forced to flee their home countries because of their sexuality. Most come from Uganda where, years ago, Evangelical Christians from America drummed up homophobia that culminated in arrests, public beatings and murders.
In contrast to people fleeing places like South Sudan or Somalia, the majority of whom tend to be extremely poor, LGBT refugees come from all manner of circumstance. Some worked jobs at restaurants, while others held university degrees. Many were students, while some of the youngest hadn’t even completed high school.
But Kenya is no safe haven for a gay person: even here, acts of homosexuality can be punished with up to 14 years in prison.
Having spent their entire lives hiding their sexuality – from their family, their teachers, their government – they arrive in Kenya only to discover they must hide themselves here, too.
Except, that is, for the moments when they must do precisely the opposite: chronicle their most intimate, often tragic stories during interviews that determine whether they’re eligible for resettlement to Europe or North America.
They are perpetual outsiders – out of place in their own countries, and out of place while they wait in limbo to see what will become of them. This house – along with a handful of apartments like it – is where they wait. Some have been here for months, even years.
Back in Kampala, Nelson was an LGBT rights activist who studied theology and sexuality at Uganda’s premiere university. He helped young gays discover their talents in dance, artistry and poetry.
It’s due to his creativity and determination, bringing the refugees together to do something, that he’s become a natural leader of the group. “People have talents, but they don’t know how to expose them,” he says.
The 25-year-old has made it his mission to keep morale up among the rest. Apart from organising netball competitions at the house, he leads a twice-weekly dance group where he choreographs traditional dances from Uganda – Maganda, Emaali, Kisoga styles.
He also writes plays that the other refugees act out – stories of young gay Ugandans who struggle to make sense of what religion and society say about them, and whether or not they should come out.
On a cool afternoon, Nelson opens a digital script of one of those plays on his cell phone. Called Homophobia in Church, it’s set in modern-day Kampala. The protagonist is Abby, “a beautiful young lady in her early twenties. She is a lesbian but closeted.”
One night Abby declines a friend’s invite to go out dancing with other LGBT friends, opting to attend church instead. But to her horror, she finds herself paralysed in the pews as the pastor preaches against the evils of homosexuality.
“We see young boys dressing like girls, young girls like men,” says the fictional pastor. In reference to gay sex, he says, “even animals don’t behave like that.”
“Abby thought the church would be her solace,” reads the prologue to the play. Instead, it becomes the source of her uncertainty. “Didn’t you hear what the pastor said, what he preached about ‘us’ ” she asks a gay friend after the service. “Sometimes I think (I) am a curse.”
“We’re looking for funds so we can shoot it as a short movie,” says Nelson, putting away his cell phone. But for now, he laments that his fellow gay refugees are stuck not just inside this house, but inside their own imaginations.
Out front, he shows me the garden where they’re growing sukuma wiki (a kind of kale), maize and beans. It’s just a few square metres, separated from the rest of the yard by a collection of stones. The garden is perfectly groomed – not a single weed in sight. But he says it’ll never be enough to feed all of them. “It’s just something to keep us busy.”
Nelson fled here in January 2015. He spent an entire year waiting to receive refugee status – the first step in the process toward resettlement. He still hasn’t gotten a call from a foreign embassy inviting him to the security and medical interviews designed to further vet him – and to determine whether he’ll ever get to leave.
A short drive away, three gay Ugandans sit barefoot on a mattress in a dark, 10-by-5-foot room. For LGBT refugees, surviving day-by-day in a homophobic place means hiding yourself physically – while also hiding your identity.
As we talk, a 29-year-old transgender woman named Tony walks into the room, setting a navy blue and white Apex purse down on the bed. She says she was just stopped by a police officer who asked for her refugee documents which, luckily, she happened to have.
Then the officer asked for money, which she didn’t. “They asked for chai,” she says, tea being a euphemism for a bribe. “But I said I didn’t have anything.” Fortunately, the officer let her go, this time.
Most LGBT refugees agree that transgender friends like Tony have it the hardest – a person who looks like a man but wears women’s clothing and a purse can’t help but stand out.
“They know the bags cause trouble,” explains Kato, a 29-year-old from Kampala. “But the bags are part of them.”
To deflect attention, the refugees must constantly lie to their neighbours about what they’re doing in Kenya and why they’re always at home.
Some say they’re here to attend university. ‘But why don’t you ever go to class?’ the neighbours ask. Sometimes they shut the door to their room, turn out the lights, and stay quiet for hours on end in an attempt to make the neighbours think they’re at lectures.
In spite of their isolation, the housemates somehow manage to remain globally engaged, aware. Kato often ventures to a nearby internet café.
“Sometimes you just want to see what’s going on in the world,” he says. “News, new movies – if you don’t keep up, you are just lost.”
At the cybercafé, the gay refugees burn CDs with music from back home. A pile of them lies next to the door. There’s Afrobeat by Jose Chameleone, pop songs by Juliana Kanyomozi, African R&B by Irene Namubiru, and folk songs by Annet Nandujja. Alongside them are Hollywood blockbusters and ripped episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Many of these refugees are educated and worldly. One day last year, Kato asked me what state in the US I’m from. When I said Wisconsin, he asked me who I was voting for.
It was Tuesday 5 April, 2016 – the date of Wisconsin’s presidential primary. And here, in a concrete room on the other side of the world, these young people knew nearly as much about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as I did.
Long before President Trump set out to erode America’s reputation as a safe haven for refugees by reducing the paltry number that the US admits each year, and banning certain categories of people entirely, the chances of an African refugee making it to safety were already slim.
In a world with 65 million displaced people, some have advocated for prioritising Africa’s LGBT refugees. But to do so would come at the expense of others.
In Kenya, refugees frequently show up at the Nairobi office of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission seeking financial support, housing or help dealing with the police.
Eric Gitari, executive director of the organisation, does what he can to assist. In 2015, he even spent time in the Kakuma refugee camp, up in Kenya’s north, to investigate violent attacks against LGBT refugees living there.
Another local organisation that provides HIV testing and health resources to men who have sex with men, including sex workers, has begun servicing the refugee community too.
But often these allies must urge gay refugees to hide their sexuality and generally keep a low profile for their own safety. Some warn against speaking with journalists, out of concern that publicity could bring the wrong sort of attention.
Few of the Ugandans speak much Swahili, the predominant language in Kenya. Without it, they stand out. “Kenyans and other refugees know a person is Ugandan by the way he talks and presume that, because there is no war in Uganda, the person must be seeking asylum because he is gay.
So it sets up these refugees for serious security risks,” says Melanie Nathan, who advocates for LGBT refugees at the Africa Human Rights Coalition.
As a consequence, “people have become very clever at hiding in the closet – hiding who you are,” adds Melanie. But that can cause problems when it comes time to tell their stories to the UN and other officials who have the power to decide whether their claims of persecution have merit.
“Proving that you’re gay is a very tough thing to do,” says Melanie. “You can’t just go there and say, ‘Hey, I’m gay and it’s against the law of my country to be gay, get me the hell out of here.’ They want to hear a story, to really legitimise the fact that the person’s gay.”
And yet, outside of interviews, they tell the gay refugees to do the opposite: to remain in the closet, to refrain from protesting and just wait. Last year, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partner, an NGO called HIAS, may have gone a step too far.
They asked refugees to sign a ‘code of conduct’ that read, “I, (print name), hereby agree that my receipt of (financial) and material assistance is conditional upon me behaving in a civil and respectful manner toward HIAS, UNHCR and other partner staff.”
One refugee said it felt as though he were being treated like a child – hushed by the adults who held power over his future.
But for the most part, officials urge the refugees to keep silent because the threats of doing otherwise are real. Gay refugees in Kenya have been blackmailed and arrested by police, attacked by homophobic neighbours, even rounded up and shipped off to one of the desolate refugee camps in Kenya’s north, where all refugees are technically required to reside.
The conundrum is that if they hope to someday be resettled to a place where they can express their sexuality openly, for now they must hide it absolutely. They walk a thin line between advocacy – necessary to elicit money for rent or for food in order to survive – and anonymity.
Two people who have ventured onto either side of that line are 22-year-old Raj and 25-year-old Santos. A Ugandan who ed homophobic teachers as a teenager, Raj hid out in Kenya for years.
To get by, he started dating a local guy who offered him a place to stay. He’s talkative, but wary of talking too much in public.
When I ask if he’s heard any news about his family back in Uganda – the family who disowned him – he says, “I don’t even ask. I’m chasing a new life.”
Raj is young, virtually a kid. He fled after he was outed and humiliated in front of his entire high school – beaten publicly by his teachers.
For a while, he was making the six-hour journey each way between Nairobi and the western Kenyan city of Kisumu so he could undergo cancer treatment at the only clinic he could afford.
The police here are bad, he says. But “in church, it’s worse. Many say, ‘God created Adam and Eve, God never created Adam and Adam. There are people that should be eliminated from the community.’”
Last July Raj was resettled to Atlanta, Georgia. Santos wasn’t so lucky. Before I had a chance to meet him in person, Santos messaged me asking if he could send me his story.
“I came to Nairobi after my family and the village discovered I was a transgendered gay person,” he wrote.
“The villagers attacked and beat me severely then dragged me to the police station. At the police station, I was mugged, then tortured for seven terrible days.”
“I have been in Kenya for two years,” wrote Santos. “But I have been arrested more than four times due to my sexual orientation.”
Refugees aren’t told why their case lingers. Recently, Santos decided he’d waited long enough. In February, he began protesting publicly with other gay refugees in front of the UNHCR building in Nairobi.
They were holding signs, calling attention to themselves – precisely the thing that the UN officers trying to help had asked them not to do.
“People still suffering at the UN without being helped,” he wrote me in a message over WhatsApp, along with photos he’d taken at the protests.
Such actions have back red in the past. A team of Mexican videographers once showed the faces of a group of gay refugees in footage for the world to see.
Suddenly, the Ugandans found themselves outed to family or friends who hadn’t previously known their secret. In theory, the police or even hitmen who had hunted them down now knew where to find them.
Before Raj was resettled, I asked him if he would ever consider returning to Uganda. “Never, never, never,” he said. “I remember the thousands of students who knew what I am.”
Earlier in May, Santos sent me a photo of a letter he received from the UNHCR dated 24 April, which described the effect that President Trump’s recent executive orders banning refugees would have here.
“These orders… significantly reduce the number of refugees to be landed in the US for the year by more than one half – from 110,000 to 50,000,” the letter read.
As a result, “The US will not be accepting any new resettlement submissions for the foreseeable future.” Santos was recently referred to the US embassy and was in the process of being vetted for resettlement.
But he says a UNHCR officer made him sign a paper stating that he understood they would now be withdrawing his case. With the flick of his pen, President Trump may have brought Santos’ dreams of escaping to safety in America to a halt.
Refugees like Raj and Santos, who were persecuted at home, understand what it means to lie low. Having escaped a life of constant threat, some come to Kenya with a newfound hope that perhaps at last they can can be themselves.
“You see those people who walk around with huge tattoos on their arm that say, ‘I am a homosexual.’ It’s very difficult to tell them to keep a low profile,” says Gitahi Githuku, a human rights consultant in Nairobi who has worked with gay refugees there.
“We tell them, ‘If you keep a low profile for the time you have to spend in Kenya, nothing will really happen to you.’ But we don’t have a capacity to protect each and every individual.”
In June 2014, a 37-year-old refugee we’ll call Joshua was walking in downtown Nairobi when police stopped him. It was the height of Kenya’s crackdown on refugees, waged in lieu of fighting terrorism following high-profile attacks by the Somali militant group al-Shabaab.
Thousands of foreigners were rounded up by police and sent to the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya’s north, including Joshua.
Joshua told the officers that he was HIV positive and that he needed to retrieve his medication – retrovirals he kept in the house that he shared with the others. But the officers refused and shipped him off to Kakuma.
Because police hadn’t allowed him to retrieve his medical records either, doctors in the refugee camp didn’t know what to prescribe him.
As weeks went by without the correct medicine, Joshua says he became frail and unable to hold his food. At one point, doctors told him his CD4 count – a measure of the proteins in his immune cells – had dropped to 70.
According to the US government, people with a CD4 count below 200 who go untreated don’t tend to survive more than three years. Joshua probably would have died had he not managed to escape the camp and board a bus back to Nairobi.
“I was very weak,” said Joshua. “I got sick to the extent that I could die.”
Joshua’s is one of many harrowing experiences that remind Nairobi’s gay refugees that they are outsiders, meant to be neither seen nor heard.
They are outcasts living illegally in a foreign city, criminals in a country that outlaws homosexuality. They are young urbanites in a world where to be ‘out’ in private digital spheres such as Facebook and WhatsApp is easy – but they’re physically stuck in a place where it can be a death sentence.
For people like Joshua, the only way out is forward. To go back would mean returning to a world where homosexuals are jailed, beaten or worse; to return to family and friends who had little choice but to turn against them.
Growing up as a lesbian in Uganda, Josephine took care not to kiss her girlfriend in public. But one day suspicious teenagers in her village snuck into her house and looked at her phone.
“They saw I was sending messages to my girlfriend. I would say, ‘I love you, I miss you.’”
Rumours spread quickly, and the chairman of the village confronted Josephine’s father with the news: “Your child is gay – did you teach your child to be gay?”
The only way to disassociate himself from his daughter’s sin was to disown her. Josephine listened in shock as her father declared her to be “a curse on the family”. He told the neighbours they could burn her, stone her to death: “Do whatever they want with me.”
One afternoon when Josephine dared to venture outside, a small mob confronted her. Josephine ran, but slipped, bloodying her hands and knees.
The mob chased her, throwing stones. She managed to escape, but could never return home again without risking her life, or at least her liberty. Someone reported her to the police, who were said to be searching for her.
Deciding she had no choice but to flee the only country she’d ever known, Josephine boarded a bus to Kenya on 20 November, 2014.
She was one of hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgender refugees from Uganda who did the same following the passage of the so-called ‘kill the gays’ bill, which ultimately punished some acts of homosexuality with life in prison.
But Josephine was lucky. Now 24, she was among the one per cent – a fraction of the world’s 65 million displaced people – who won resettlement to somewhere safe.
Last year, with the help of the UN and the US Refugee Resettlement Program, Josephine boarded a flight for Chicago.
And yet, despite recent attempts by the government to pin their nation’s problems on refugees, by allowing them to stay, Kenya is doing far more to help people like Josephine than wealthier countries like the US.
“The story is: why are we not doing for gay people what we did for Jewish émigrés in Russia? We had special visas for those people,” says Melanie Nathan, the human rights advocate.
Jordan, Turkey, Kenya – these nations are home to millions of refugees, whereas many countries in Europe and North America accept only several thousand each year.
One month before his flight to America, Raj sent a message over Facebook: “I’ll b the happiest guy, to start over and b free.”
Just a few days before his flight, he wrote: “God has been grt to me. This [whole] journey has been tough, thank God it’s almost over now.”
After just a few months in Atlanta, Raj was already embracing his new life and all the political and personal implications that come with it.
On 9 November, 2016, the day after the US Presidential election, he posted this: “Trump won this time, time to move on. I [got] a job to go to and school to attend. Up already this morning. #GoodMorningAmerica.”
But his most revealing post popped up one day in September. “I’ve had my several ups and downs,” he wrote. “Y’all don’t need to judge me… Just know that ur future ain’t determined by your past.”
All names have been changed or modified for the source’s protection. All subjects consented to being photographed.