The Kenyan LGBTI activist David Kuria has announced his exit from mainstream LGBTI activism after a decade of involvement and leadership.
During the 10 years that he was active in the struggle for LGBTI rights in Kenya, Kuria became well-known as one of the public faces of the country’s gay community, daring to show his face and name in the media when others would not dare.
He spoke to Behind the Mask’s Melissa Wainaina about his journey, controversies, plans, hopes and ambitions.
Below are excerpts of the interview:
Please take us back a little and tell us about the stirrings of your activism?
My activism began around 2000 working on a poverty alleviation project. It was very gratifying to see us working with those with zero resources and see them build themselves. We could see the changes and I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to do the same about my life too.
I am a second-generation activist. My mother was a mobiliser at the Third UN Conference on Women [which] was held in Nairobi in 1985.
Many of us did not think we would live to see [former President Daniel arap] Moi leave power, but seeing the changes in the country I began to feel that there was hope for acceptance and recognition of sexual minorities. So I began to approach others asking them lets try this. At the time I think it was the Netherlands [who] were discussing on same sex marriages.
Some of us came together. Many felt that gay bashes (parties) were as good as it gets and frankly even this is an important kind of activism – social activism. However I was interested in sparking political activism which I thought was possible considering the radical shifts that the Kenyan political space experienced.
It wasn’t easy people were not listening and I almost gave up. By then my links within the community were primarily with “bourgeois LGBTI” and I actually did not get much support from this group. Those who answered my call to build the movement had much more to lose risking arrest and beatings.
What was LGBTI organising like before?
Speaking from gay mans point of view, meetings happened in public toilets. There was nothing respectable about it. I knew that this was not my life. It’s hard to admit it but it’s our history. One would go there pretend to pee and that was the sign.
Today, social networks seem to be the new spaces to interact within the community.
Do you see any gains in the LGBTI Movement?
It’s both sweet and sour. It is true there have been some gains, but in regards to HIV and Aids, we have failed totally. We should not be as infected as much as we are and tragically the infections will only rise.
We ought to be having this discussion but we aren’t and internal dynamics within the community that have blocked the road for open discussions.
What drives you? What is your motivation?
Around 2003 I lost a friend to Aids. He had served time in prison and was infected there. As you know, our prisons have very poor nutrition so he got quite sick. When he died, I felt that I could not stand and do nothing about people in the community.
Thrust into activism by HIV. That’s a debate LGBTI have really evaded.
Considering the alarming statistics show that the community is heavily infected, it’s hard to understand why this issue is not a top priority. Some statistics give you 47 per cent prevalence among the MSM and in some sexual networks the prevalence in much higher.
Discussion around this crisis is not easy.
Those figures are alarming. But what do you think contributes to this silence? What about other sexual minorities?
There is a high level of stigma within the community is the first thing. Basically if a gay man is known to be HIV positive, other gay men will not want to associate with him.
You know what I have been advocating so much is for honesty.
If partners were honest then they would say: “Listen, I am HIV positive but I am on treatment and this reduces chance of infected to 98 per cent with protection rather than being out there with someone whose status you do not know.”
But because of the high level of stigma within, no one is willing to be open about their status.
This stigma is explained by the facts that populations that experience stigma from the larger community tend to be very prejudiced inwards. It is similar to a ripple effect. I believe if we work on bringing down the stigma towards LGBTI, it will normalise the community and ease on the prejudice felt within.
It must be a milestone that MSM gained entry in the Kenya National Aids Strategy Document III?
Yes however, MSM in the National Aids programme didn’t just happen. A lot of effort was put into this. For instance, I never missed a single meeting and GALCK (the Gay and lesbian Coalition of Kenya) was involved in weekly meetings [which were] drawn out for about a year.
Basically, if you are on that table of discussion representing your population will not be maligned. Presence on that discussion in itself was activism won’t be maligned – presence was activism.
But those discussions were not always easy, sometimes we would be told “Have your gay battles out there not here on HIV!”
Beyond stigma, a major stumbling block for HIV care, prevention and treatment for sexual minorities is their criminalisation.
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