In Summary

  • “The first person I officially came out to was my elder brother. My parents had been dead for 10 years then. I was 26. We were out on the terrace, having morning coffee and a cigarette. He and I have always been close. I had thought of a million ways to have this conversation with him but never seemed to have the right words or opportunity.”

Gladys is a 27-year-old gay woman. Sporting fitting khaki pants, a t-shirt, low-heeled boots and dreadlocks arranged in a tight, low bun there’s nothing about her appearance that expresses her sexual identity.

When we first meet, she lets out occasional nervous grunts, choosing her words carefully – trying to ‘feel me out’ before deciding whether to open up. She is a closeted lesbian, and this is not a topic she discusses with strangers.

After about 30 minutes of guarded, ice-breaker conversation, we discuss author Binyavanga Wainaina’s coming-out story, which helps us glide into the matter at hand, “That was such a big deal for me,” Gladys says.

“He’s not just any Kenyan. He’s an icon. So on the one hand, I felt validated because in a society where homosexuality is seen as a deficiency and nothing else but, here was someone who is respected the world over.

Once people find out you are gay, they put a scarlet letter on your forehead such that all your other abilities and human attributes become non-existent.

I don’t think it’s possible to do that with someone like Binyavanga. Being gay is not the definition of my existence but for an ‘average’ girl like me, if I come out, it just might. I’m afraid of that. “

A graduate student at a private university in Nairobi, Gladys says she has no intention of coming out to her family. “I feel that I will not be afforded the same protection that people of stature or from a liberalised setting are afforded. My mother is 62 years old.

She and I have never discussed sex, let alone homosexuality. Recently, my 13-year-old nephew picked up an interest in playing guitar. This older guy in their neighbourhood has a guitar so my nephew went to his place a lot. So my mum says to me, ‘I sent your sister some money to buy Joe a guitar because I don’t like the idea of him spending all that time in that man’s place; especially not with this homosexual nonsense going around’. This was said in mother-tongue so the slurs are lost in translation. How do I even begin telling my mother, who thinks guitar lesson between two boys is a risk for homosexual orientation, that I, her youngest daughter, am gay?”

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL

Brian, 30, is the lastborn in a family of seven siblings; one brother and five sisters. Their parents are deceased. To him, the issue of whether to come out as gay to his family was and still causes him internal conflict.

“The first person I officially came out to was my elder brother. My parents had been dead for 10 years then. I was 26. We were out on the terrace, having morning coffee and a cigarette. He and I have always been close. I had thought of a million ways to have this conversation with him but never seemed to have the right words or opportunity.”

But a new and openly gay friend had provided the impetus for Brian to get it done with, “so I stuttered, ‘what would you say if I told you I was gay?’ As soon as it came out, I thought it sounded stupid. I didn’t have the guts to make the statement ‘I am gay’.

What that question really meant was ‘would you hate me if I told you I was gay?’ I was so nervous; if my closest brother rejected me, there’s no saying what the rest of the family would do.”

EMBARRASSING THE FAMILY

Brian says his brother went quiet for a minute, lit another cigarette and said with a grunt, ‘dude, I kind of suspected, but I wasn’t sure’. He then said something that diminished the glimmer of hope that had arisen in Brian’s spirit. “He said, very casually, ‘no problem, just be careful man, I don’t want to walk around with people telling me my brother is a fag’. He was okay with me being gay, just as long as I didn’t broadcast it and embarrass the family.”   

After days of requests and declines, Brian’s brother finally agreed to a phone interview with me. “At first, it was unsettling because in as much as I suspected it, it’s not the same as when it is confirmed. There was safety in not knowing. I told him it was okay because he’s my brother and I love him. But I told him to take care so that he doesn’t get into trouble with other people. You know how people will react, so why cause a stir? Just do your thing in private and in peace.”

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