An interview with Gigi Louisa, LGBQ activist in Kenya

“In Kenya , I always have to be careful. Because I’m attracted to women, because of the work I do and just because I am a woman. I can be attacked at any time, on the street or in my own house. Or I can be arrested on bogus charges. Anyone who is with me is also at risk. So what do you do? Do you bow down, give in to your fears? Not me. This must change.” Gigi Louisa from Kenya is a woman on a mission. She’s fighting for equal rights for sexual minorities in Kenya.

Trouble-making skills

“I keep having to explain myself. People think I’ve been hurt by too many men, so I decided to become a lesbian. Or I just haven’t had good sex, so I decided to become a lesbian. Or I’m simply a strong-headed feminist and no man will have me, so I decided to become a lesbian. A while ago, I went to the doctor for a regular PAP-smear. He went: ‘Oh come on nurses, come see, we have a lesbian! Explain to us how you have sex.’ It’s crazy and it’s humiliating. And we’re not just dealing with misconceptions, there’s also a lot of violence and aggression.”

“I was never the quiet type, my trouble-making skills started way back. The little time that I actually spent in college was in a religious institution. They told me not to be too radical when we had discussions on important subjects. They also told me to cover my tattoos and not to wear my piercings. And then, one day, when we got back our essays on human rights issues, mine was returned unmarked. ‘You’ll have to start over’, they said. ‘Gay rights are not human rights.’ That’s when I knew I really had to do something.” The activist in Gigi had awakened.

People like me

“I was still completely naïve. I knew I had these feelings, but I didn’t know anyone else who was gay, so I went online and Googled ‘gay people in Kenya’. One of the first search results was GALCK, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. It said ‘contact us’. I had no cell phone, so I went outside to a shop where you give the number and some money to a lady and she places the call for you.”

“I was so scared, I didn’t dare to use the word ‘lesbian’. You can imagine, it was a strange conversation. I said something like: ‘I think I’d be interested in visiting your organisation. I think you are there for uhhh… for people like me. Should we meet?’. I was invited to a movie night. When I got there, I was amazed. I’d never seen a group of queer people together, and there were so many of them! Soon after that, I started volunteering for one of the organizations under GALCK called MWA (Minority Women in Action) where my career in SOGIE rights officially kicked off.”

Taking the world by storm

“GALCK unites 16 organisations from across the country. I am now an assistant programs officer at GALCK and director of Minority Women in Action, one of the 16 members. I’m proud to say our team has actually made progress. When I started, the community had almost shrivelled out completely, nothing happened. At the same time, issues like increasing alcohol and drug abuse and intimate partner violence were clearly present among LBQ’s. There was a painful sense of aloneness, in general.”

“I said: ‘We have to reconvene. We need to create a space where LBQ’s can come together and have a barbecue, watch a movie, share our experiences.’ After about two years, membership has doubled and we’re taking the world by storm. We’re focusing primarily on sexual reproductive health rights now. It’s almost impossible for a gay couple to have a child at the moment in Kenya, due to the existing criminalizing laws against same sex couples. Lesbians will generally say the father has left the mother and baby. It’s easier and safer than telling the truth. And women need a pseudo-dad to register the child for school, housing, medical care, everything.”

“I’m just a simple girl form a non-privileged background. I only had one year of college, no official training or certificates. Everything I know, I’ve learned on the job. I’m just working from experience. On the other hand, you could argue that my energy is better spent here than in school. Either way, this is the work I’ve chosen. And because of it, I will never have a career outside the human rights movement. No corporate employer will hire me.”

Full of hate

“We are still a long way from acceptance in Kenya. Some of my friends are great activists, who break down completely when they come out to their parents and they disown them, they are so full of hate. In Nairobi, there is literally one bar I can go to. In rural areas, the stigma is even greater. There are huge cultural and religious boundaries that we need to break through.”

“When my mother found out I’m gay, her instinctive response was fear and rage. She didn’t see how I could be so selfish and was afraid someone would harm or even kill me. The way we’re raised, you don’t talk back to your parents. So I ran. After about three months, I got up the courage to sit her down and talk to her. I tried to make her see things from my perspective. And she listened. Now, she’s come to understand that being gay is not a choice. But you see, the fact that my mother accepts me means I am privileged and that, of course, is not okay.”

Social change

In ‘Out and About’, the film that was shown on Saturday 11 March at the Roze Filmdagen, we see Gigi’s mother saying ‘She is exactly the same girl. She just has a different sexuality.’ She also tells her daughter to stop lying about her work and her lover and come out to the rest of the family. ‘They have always loved you and they always will.’ It was an emotional moment for Gigi. “We had never talked about that, about telling my relatives. It was a big hurdle for me, and it made me feel so much better to hear my mother say that.”

When Gigi got the call, asking if she wanted to be in a documentary following the parents of people who had come out in Russia, Indonesia and Kenya, she immediately said yes. “Then I called my mom and asked her if she was willing to participate. I explained it was risky. I’m used to mitigating those risks on a daily basis, she is not. But she said: ‘Back then, when women had no rights at all, it took brave ladies to generate change. Somebody always has to take the first leap. So let me speak up.’ I’m so proud of her. Even though the film is completely hush-hush and it is very difficult to show in Kenya and many other countries, my mother is now helping us to make a difference.”

Platform for parents

By letting the parents speak, the filmmakers have touched upon an important theme. “In South-Africa for instance, the system looks good but social acceptance is low. That is still dangerous. I think social change needs to go hand in hand with legal and administrative change. So what we really need in Kenya is a platform for parents of LBQ children. A safe space where they can meet other parents facing the same challenges. If parents can talk to parents, family to family, that’s where change is going to begin.”

Just some happiness

Where does Gigi see herself five or ten years from now? “I’m 28 now. In five years’ time, I’d like to pass my strength on to the next wave of leaders. Personal and professional strength, for they will need it. Just like we will need young people full of energy and idealism to carry the torch. I’d like to step back then and raise a family. Live on a farm, with some cows and goats, together with my partner and children.”

“Ten years from now, I hope there will be some equality. I just want some happiness for my mother, my friends, my community and myself. Even if we haven’t reached all of our goals by then, I do hope to see the movement still going strong, working together. There is a saying that I like: If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.

We ask Gigi if this could be a dream, a little further along the way: her kids coming together to celebrate her life, saying ‘This was our mother. She was on the frontline fighting for what she believed in.’ Gigi smiles silently for a second. “That would be the happiest dream actually, because it would mean everything had worked out successfully. It would mean justice.”