LGB Support in Peace Corps Kenya
May 3, 2003
Kenya is a fairly conservative country. Sex almost never comes up in normal conversation between Kenyan friends and co-workers. For a man to hold hands with his female partner would be very scandalous and people would stare. Homosexuality is even more taboo. In Kenya people who are caught in a homosexual act can be prosecuted with up to 10 years in prison. Attitudes among the local communities toward openly gay people, or people that everyone believes is gay, ranges from avoidance to physical hostility. Is this any place for a gay volunteer?
Well… I entered Peace Corps Kenya in May of 2000. Knowing that attitudes in Kenya were more conservative than in the U.S., I figured that I would proceed cautiously during training to feel out the situation. Two weeks of training went by and we got lots of information on many aspects of life in Kenya. One cultural awareness exercise we did was to discuss a type of person and how that person might be received in their community. One example discussed was a gay black atheist. We discussed the topic a bit, and then the Kenyan facilitator said that people might think you are Kenyan if you are black, evil if you are atheist, and they may stone you to death if you are gay. Of course knowing the facilitator’s penchant for hyperbole, I just figured that meant it wasn’t such a hot idea to be out in my community. Other than that, the Peace Corps didn’t mention homosexuality much at all.
Luckily, there was another volunteer in my group who is gay (I will call him Bob). Bob and I decided that there was no need to be out to anyone other than other gay people while here in Kenya. As it happens, Bob was an expert at routing out other gay people and it wasn’t long after we were placed at our sites that we had a decent sized group of gay friends. This served as a good support network for both of us. The idea of the Peace Corps providing a support network for gay and lesbian volunteers wasn’t even thought about as a need by the staff or by Bob and me for that matter.
This changed one year later when another group of volunteers came to Kenya in May 2001. Two of them were gay and very open about it right away. One of them left the country after one week due to other issues (i.e. he was afraid of insects and dirty conditions) but the other volunteer was more serious. He also had lots of questions about gay life in Kenya that the staff just didn’t know how to handle. No one knew what to do. I was very busy at my site, and told Bob to go talk to him, tell him everything is cool, and that Kenya is a nice country with a really good underground gay network. Tragically, Bob is a bit of a head job, and although he talked to the new gay volunteer, Bob didn’t tell him that he was gay, and instead told him that there was another volunteer he could talk to about it. I was shocked by this paranoid moronic behavior on the part of Bob. After a week or so of prying, I finally got the new volunteer’s email address only to find out that he’d left the country a day before I emailed him to say that there is nothing in Kenya for a gay person to freak out about. A few days later, Bob was administratively separated for totally unrelated reasons.
I decided that Peace Corps needed a gay and lesbian support structure. I was in Nairobi for the All- Volunteer Conference, and met with the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) of Kenya. She is a very kind and understanding woman, and I felt she would be best able to assist in the matter. I explained about the situation of the volunteer leaving due to his lack of support with gay and lesbian issues. I told her that if anyone others had any such questions that she should refer them to me. Since I was gay I would be more than happy to network with other gay and lesbian volunteers so they’d know they weren’t alone and that there were also lots of gay and lesbian Kenyans out there.
The PCMO then set up a small open space session at the All-Volunteer Conference on diversity issues. There were other volunteers interested in peer counseling and minority and age issues. It turned out that it wasn’t just gay and lesbian volunteers that had a variety of unique problems. Many minority volunteers also had issues of concern. Over the next year, we formed a Peer Support and Diversity Committee to create an atmosphere of peer support within the volunteer community and also create awareness among the staff on diversity issues ranging from LGB issues to religious, ethnic and age issues. I also decided to be out among the Peace Corps Volunteers, because why not really?
I returned home from Kenya in October of 2002, but I still keep in contact with some of the volunteers there. One new volunteer who is gay is on the Diversity Support Committee and apparently they have now begun to run sessions to train the staff in handling gay issues. Totally different from 2 years ago! While the process is still ongoing, I would say that Peace Corps Kenya is a much more hospitable place for gay volunteers. Anyone reading this who is thinking of joining the Peace Corps and interested in Africa, put Kenya on the top of your list of places to be assigned!