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What a Queer Urban Future Looks Like: Nairobi

This article was originally published by Arts Everywhere as part of a Global Roundtable responding to the question: What does a queer urban future look like?

By Eric Gitari

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, the famed green city under the sun, is a beautiful mosaic where everything happens. When Nairobi was a young city, Wambui Otieno and other Mau Mau freedom fighters would sneak into River Road, which was under colonial rule, to repair their guns and buy supplies before disappearing off into the forests. It was in River Road that I’d meet my first LGBT legal aid clients when I was working at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) as an associate lawyer in 2010. 

It was in Nairobi’s Central Park and Arboretum Park where LGBT organizations like HOYMAS were founded, while sitting beneath trees of ancestral forests bemoaning exclusion and planning our liberation. (The first gay organization in Kenya, Ishtar MSM, was formed as a social support group in Nairobi after an inspiring androgynous show about the goddess Ishtar at the National Theatre in Nairobi.) Our first meeting in 2010 brought together close to a hundred young men who wanted solutions to blackmail and extortion, police harassment, violence and HIV/STI prevention and treatment. The Nairobi city police almost arrested us for illegal gathering until I swiped my KHRC ID and shared copies of Kenya’s 2010 proposed constitution, which I was also explaining at the Park meeting.

After the constitution passed in 2011, Nairobi’s streets saw a demonstration waving rainbow flags with slogans such as “mashoga wanahaki” (gays have rights), and “my body my business;” most foot soldiers in these protests came from the group formed in the open Central Park meeting of 2010. We marched to City Hall demanding accountability from city police who were systematically harassing effeminate gay men in the streets at night. 

Increasingly, Nairobi has grown to become a vibrant, tolerant metropolis that functions as a technology, trade, migration, and cultural powerhouse of East and Central Africa. As a political-cultural center, Nairobi’s City Hall hosted a cocktail party to launch Kenya’s first Gay and Lesbian Awards in 2012. This has been consistent with International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia 2013 being hosted at the same public political venue. Many LGBT demonstrations, picnics, and meetings still continue to take place in Nairobi’s green spaces and forests, such as the Arboretum and Karura Forest. 

In the 90s, gay men used to cruise along Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue by donning a white handkerchief on their trousers. Today, people cruise openly at Central Park, cyber cafes, gay bars, social sites, matatus, Hilton corner, and other places we discover every day.

The city’s cosmopolitan culture is multi-layered with all of the multiracial, ethnic, religious, and other diversities a world-class city would have. With her British colonial culture of capitalism, Nairobi, the only African city with two U.N. agency headquarters and many aspects of strategic positioning in trade and infrastructure, is a self-styled “New York” of East Africa. Like many other cities, Nairobi is saturated with a youth population that represents a chance for what Nairobians call “live and let live.” Such tolerant social attitudes, respect for the market economy, an expanded constitutional democracy, independent courts, a vibrant, ever-evolving social justice movement with multiplicity of queer actors included, and other factors make Nairobi a work station I would not trade for another.

Today, whether protesters are occupying parliament with live pigs, wearing miniskirts in the streets to protest “my dress my choice,” or participating in the Unga Revolution demonstrations against high food prices, there will be a rainbow flag or a queer person representing and exercising their right and duty as a concerned citizen. The state routinely invites LGBT leaders and other stakeholders for meetings in Nairobi to discuss inclusive public health programming and access to justice. 

In our legal aid center in Nairobi, we have hung a huge rainbow flag visible from the main road; it brings in many clients and curious folks, but no one has ever attacked us for it. Queer artists such as AFRA and The Nest openly exhibit queer art; reputed art spaces such as the Kuona Trust and the GoDown Art Centre in Nairobi do too. Donors and INGOs working on LGBT issues operate freely in Nairobi like other domestic NGOs. LGBT refugees from eastern Africa currently have communes within Nairobi whose government grants asylum to them and aids in processing their resettlement to Europe and North America. We have noted that many regional and international LGBT conferences, including regional strategies that led to the adoption of the African Commission’s “Resolution on Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity” in 2014, come to Nairobi for her warmth, world class hospitality, and “open for business” approach. 

We work within a Nairobi judiciary that is respected for liberal jurisprudence on rights and fearless checking of state power. The Constitutional Court in Nairobi in 2015 ordered the state to register our organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and further stated that sexual orientation is protected in the Constitution from discrimination. Our Nairobi LGBT constituency magnets links with other LGBT groups in regional towns easing movement coordination and civic education/other programs. The police are bittersweet but they always offer us security during all IDAHOBIT meetings, Gay and Lesbian Awards, and the demonstrations we held at the Nigeria and Ugandan High Commissions in Nairobi in 2014 (we had to flee police arrest at the Ugandan one). Nairobi’s spirit offers one a chance to be brave, it allows authenticity, it allows creativity in one’s search of dreams, such as in our application of the law towards justice. It throws you to the world, a greater universe of infinite possibilities than anywhere else in our African region.

Nairobi’s cosmopolitan culture allows anonymity, giving many queer people space to be "out" in the streets and bars but closeted in the village. Her fast-paced capitalistic rush offers no time for idle scrutiny of gay folks. In Nairobi, so long as you are paying your bills, obeying the law and minding your business with reasonable discretion, LGBT folks can thrive as equal citizens of the global world. And her youth-driven social fabric population will keep evolving the norms and intersecting her to the greater world where all are equal—be they white, black, gay, straight, Kikuyu, Luo, Maasai, Muslim, refugee, or otherwise. This is a brief queer bio of the home of our liberation, Nairobi, the city under the sun.

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Eric Gitari is a lawyer with Nairobi-based National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) Kenya.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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