Last year in Mombasa, Kenya’s most socially conservative city, a new lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) group was formed to provide psycho-social and health support to their often repressed community. It calls itself PEMA, which means “place of solace” in kiSwahili, the national language.
From HIV/AIDS awareness to feeding programmes, PEMA is determined to gain acceptance and tolerance for Kenya’s LGBT community. Trough their monthly “gay parties,” they help the LGBT community network and, as Erica, a PEMA member, says, “let loose.” In a society where homosexuality is punishable by a jail sentence (and informally by death or stoning), PEMA is making a daring move against the status quo. “Erica” has begun speaking on the radio about her experiences as a lesbian in Kenya. She does not dare reveal her identity, however. She described returning to her oﬃce after one radio show to ﬁnd coworkers talking about the audacity of speaking out on a taboo subject. However, she believes that only by telling people publicly about homosexuality can she help dismantle the many barriers her community faces.
Hatred towards the LGBT community in Kenyan has been fostered primarily by strict Christian and Muslim views of homosexuality as an abomination. There are also claim that it was introduced by Westerners and is therefore something that one adopts culturally in cities like Mombasa and Nairobi, where there is a high concentration of Westerners. Few in Kenya understand the biological complexity of homosexuality, and that is something Erica is trying to change through radio shows and PEMA. By increasing Kenyans’ exposure to LGBT individuals, she is hoping that people will realize that homosexuality is a fact of life. Furthermore, by assisting new LGBT groups in more remote areas like Kisumu and Eldoret, PEMA and the national LGBT network is hoping to educate Kenyans on the fact that homosexuality is not a foreign doctrine.
“The moment you show that the gay person on the radio could be that favorite niece of yours, people become more tolerant,” she said. During her last radio show, a man called in – among all the negative commentary – and told her that he was ﬁne with homosexuality provided that she “respected his space” and vice-versa. She views that mild show of tolerance as a step in the right direction for Kenya’s LGBT community.