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.
Is there any hope for inclusion of other sexual minorities, not just MSM?
Incidentally I need to first clarify the issue around MSM. There maybe an impression that there are those that are excluded.
However, the HIV Aids programmes need to be evidence led. Studies show that there is high prevalence with men having anal sex. Biological reasons show that anal sex poses a higher risk than vaginal sex and this risk is second only to sharing injectable needles. These studies are how MSM gained entry into the National Aids Control Council (NACC) programmes.
We need to have studies and discussions around the other populations in order to have statistics for which to work from.
The German Agency for International Co-operation or GIZ has supported and helped set up a task forces with Galck, NASCOP (National Aids and STIs Control Programme), NACC and the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board to structure a sustainable way to provide treatment, care and prevention services to the LGBTI.
What is unique about this task force that sexual minorities are sitting down with government and medics and coming up with guidelines and training on sexual minority issues. So this task force is bigger than just MSM.
The ambition is that these guidelines can be used nationally allowing all Kenyan LGBTI to seek healthcare countrywide. We are also hoping to have a national referral hospital where any cases escalated on district level can be addressed in the referral unit. GIZ will support the treatment.
How will we get the community to come to the health centres? What about the decriminalisation process?
We need to connect [everything to] the decriminalisation process, which is long term. However I feel that we cannot do it without dealing with the implications on HIV and Aids interventions.
I am on record saying that I am tired of giving condoms and lubricant to the community and I said this because by the way it forms false hope!
I said this while in still heading Galck and it was quite controversial as I stepped on toes in the movement. In fact this was the major reason I left Galck.
Why don’t you take this opportunity to tell us what you meant by your remark ‘giving condoms and lubricants was not enough?’
Well I felt that while bio-medical interventions are important in the fight of the spread but I felt very strongly that we needed to do more.
We needed to encourage partner reduction, encourage couples counselling within the community. We also needed to tell the government that criminalisation of the community is a structural barrier to care, treatment and prevention to HIV and Aids.
So I felt like we needed to do more than just mitigating around bio-medical methods, but we also need to mitigate HIV interventions around breaking the structural barriers that impede on our efforts.
I did feel a policy brief to the government about this barrier from Liverpool VCT would have made quite a difference. I felt that due to their position, they could have easily done this.
As I said this, I crossed paths and stepped on toes thus my exit from Galck. It was felt that I was attacking NACC and Liverpool who are allies to the movement.
Ishtar MSM a GALCK member group had to stop working with Liverpool this [made] my position as the coalition’s head become untenable.
However I moved to Gay Kenya and I am pleased to say that amfAR supported us to work on the policy statement. I am very pleased to say that we are in the final stages of completing this document.
We have also had discussions with Minister Esther Murugi, the Special Projects Minister under which the National AIDS Programme falls and we hope we can present our policy document to the government.
It turns out that we did not need anyone to write up that policy, but I did feel that it was necessary for the movement to have some unanimity on this issue.
We will present this policy document to make a case that illustrates that same sex criminalisation is an impediment to treatment care and prevention.
The document is quite consultative has we have the input of Galck and KHRC (Kenya Human Rights Commission). The laws may not change but this will be a true milestone for the movement.
We also hope to provide issue guidelines it will open doors for LGBTI to access healthcare. We would like to get to a point where we can apply that Kenyan law does not stop one from self identifying and seeking treatment in public healthcare facilities. You can’t be harassed by police and be open and create your space. Holding hands going out for a drink and being stopped you have recourse.
This I believe will help the decriminalisation in their plight in the long term.
So now you are leaving LGBTI Activism, why?
The movement has grown and now needs different set of skills, I am simply paving way for the next generation of leadership.
My hope right now is that we can have gay owned centres. If we are successful with the policy document we will be calling the whole community to come out and be open. I see the need to have a sense of permanence in the movement – something no one can erase. The idea that Gay Kenya has to have a safe space is one that can be a legacy to leave for the future LGBTI.
There is a little confusion about the difference between a safe house and a safe space. Safe houses will always be necessary and secret in case someone within the community is in need of shelter and away from threat or danger.
But what we are seeking is a centre known and open to the community that allows up to have a permanent space within our larger communities. We do not seek to hide and something to call our own. In my parting words, I appeal to all to support this worthy cause so we can see the day we can touch the earth and call it ours!
Any final words for those left fighting in the movement?
I only hope that groups create a higher sense of ownership of shared causes as it is the only way to find real achievement whether this be political activism, or seeking social spaces, publications we need all of it. Next generation should involve more stakeholders within the movement to focus on controlling and shaping the agenda of the movement.