Sex Workers’ Rights in Kenya: "It's Better to Be a Thief Than Gay in Kenya"
Written by Siena Anstis
Thursday, 06 August 2009
John Mathenke was once arrested for being gay but, after failing to pay the customary bribe, was forced to have sex with the policeman. He had an orgy with a priest who publicly excoriates homosexuality, along with five other Masaai boys. And his Arab trader clients curse him during the day, but come back looking for sex at night. Such is the life of a homosexual prostitute in Nairobi, Kenya.
"It's better to be a thief than gay in Kenya," Mathenke says. Both are often punished by death, but being the latter means never revealing yourself to the public and remaining perpetually closeted. It means dealing with homophobes at day and pleasuring them at night.
In Kenya, statutes dating from the colonial period dictate prison sentences of up to 14 years for male homosexuality (there are no laws targeting lesbians). These laws are further influenced by powerful Christian and Muslim religious leaders who publicly condemn homosexuality. In turn, homophobia towards the LGBT community in Kenya is widespread, and as calls to decriminalize homosexuality grow, the backlash is strong. In late April, one woman was hit outside a bar with a bottle for being a lesbian.
Born into a poor household in Kenya's central province, Mathenke never finished primary school. In 2002, after spending several years as a houseboy, he was influenced by other dream-chasers moving to Nairobi, and left to the capital city. He paid a barber $30 to be trained as a haircutter. His perfect English eventually landed him a job selling textbooks in a lavish Westlands shopping center. This was the scene of his first homosexual experience. While, subconsciously, he knew it was a part of him - he says he used to wear long shirts when he was small and tied a rope around his waist to pretend it was a dress - it had yet to be experienced.
A Frenchman would come in, day after day, he says. He would open thick African history books and look at pictures of naked men. He bought many books; some that Mathenke would help him carry to the car. He never thought much of this flirtation, until the man took him out for dinner. Inebriated, they went back to the Frenchman's home and had sex. The man took him home almost every night after that. In the same store, Mathenke encountered the priest with whom he had a five-person orgy.
At this time, Mathenke was discovering his homosexual identity and decide to move to Mombasa, an area rumored friendlier to homosexuals. $700 in his pocket, he put himself up in a hotel. Eventually the money dried out and he was left desperate. He went to Mercury, a local bar, and was offered money for sex with an older European.
"When you've had sex with someone once, they don't want you again," explained Mathenke. Customers became few and far between and he continued to sleep on park benches, washing in the seawater in the morning. He also faced continued stigma: "Arab traders would insult us at day, and come looking for sex at night." A lot of his clients were - and are - popular religious leaders who would curse homosexuals in public and find pleasure in paid homosexual company in private.
Mathenke eventually returned to Nairobi, where he settled in with a new boyfriend. He continued to see clients from the big hotels: the Hilton, the Serena, the Intercontinental. He would hang out in the gay hot spots with his friends, some who continued to sleep on benches, in Uhuru park for example, near the Hilton. He had yet to use a condom.
Community outreach by Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) in Nairobi eventually led him to his "second-home." Three weeks ago, after being provided with free health services and counseling, he tested positive for HIV/AIDS. So did his partner. He tells me, matter of fact, "Now that we know this, we are talking more and confiding in each other." He has also started using protection with his clients.
In SWOP, he found inspiration and acceptance. Gloria Gakaki, a social worker at SWOP, explains that "it is not the general population that needs to be addressed. It's easier to empower the individual, make them feel as human beings, giving people a safe place."
Supported by the organization, Mathenke has started bringing together groups of young homosexual prostitutes and helping them form a community based organization, Health Option for Young Men on HIV/AIDS. Since he can't register a homosexual organization with the government, he has to use the name as a cover. He is teaching these young men - some only 12 years old - about using condoms and lubricant when having sex with men.
According to the BBC, gay men in Africa have 10 times higher HIV rates because of homophobia. In Kenya, the situation is no different: "People think you have been cursed," Mathenke explains, "It's painful, we wish we had freedom." Being a prostitute and gay is a double negative explains Gakaki, "It is a hidden population."
Since many stigmatized homosexuals in Kenya marry and have children as an identity cover, unless they are reached by HIV/AIDS education, the HIV rate will continue to increase, not only within the homosexual population, but also across Kenya.
While the government has long been reluctant to address the role of homosexuality in increasing HIV/AIDS rates, there have been some positive changes over the years. Gakaki highlights the brave role of Dr. Nicholas Maraguri, Head of the National AIDS and STD Control Program (NASCOP), who is pushing the government to address the link between HIV, homosexuality and homophobia. Maraguri has also been meeting directly with the male sex worker population to get a more in-depth idea of where the problems lie.
For further information on SWOP or to donate to Mathenke's new organization, please contact Gloria Gakaki at Ggakii@csrtkenya.org.
Websites with further information include: the National AIDS and STD Control Program (NASCOP) at http://www.aidskenya.org/ and Behind the Mask at http://www.mask.org.za/index.php?page=Kenya.