A few months ago, I drafted a piece in which I decanted most of my fears as a Queer African living abroad and sent it to one of my friends to read and comment on before I decided whether or not I would post it. After he got back to me, this friend who is also Queer and an African living in China, I decided not to post it giving in to my superstitious belief that my piece would act as an incantation that would summon the same fears I was so desperately trying to banish into reality. The piece itself had been prompted by my shock at the senseless murder of Trans activist Erica Chandra, and my realization of just how many degrees of separation we had had between us.
Days after I learned of her death through social media, I tried sorting through my friend requests on Facebook, and at the very bottom of the list was Chandra. We would have been digitally linked at the very least, by the time she met her untimely and gruesome end were it not for my lack of urgency in responding to Facebook messages and friend requests. This possibility shook me to my core and I did what many of us in the LGBTQIA+ community do when such a tragedy hits too close to home – I thought it could have been me or it wasn’t me this time, and how long will it be before I or someone close to me would be next.
The question was answered when I learned of the death of non-binary Kenyan Lesbian Sheila Lumumba, 25, who was gang-raped and murdered in their home by a total of six men who believed they had a right to violate them in this way because of their sexual orientation. Learning of the chilling details around Lumumba’s final moments on earth resurrected a familiar fear and paranoia in me. Only this time it is different. Growing up, people like me heard that people around us didn’t necessarily have a problem with us, they just didn’t want “it”, meaning our sexuality, to be shoved down their throats. “Keep it behind closed doors” was a common refrain many of us heard, and so many of us did, conforming to societal expectations as best as we could while out and about, reserving our true selves for when we were in the safety of our homes or safe spaces created for and by people like us.
But now even that assurance that once you are out of public view you are indeed safe is no more. That Lumumba was attacked, raped, and murdered in what I imagine to be their sanctuary has taken away any semblance of momentary relief people like me might possess at the thought of returning home after a long day of “acting normal”.
Through this darkness, there has, however, been a glimmer of hope. Many Kenyans online have been sharing Lumumba’s tragic story, and a surprising number are calling for justice to be served and for those responsible to be held accountable. Lumumba’s case even received coverage from the BBC, a huge step in highlighting the injustices and perils gender and sexual minorities face in Kenya and other countries across Africa where Gay sex or Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
In contrast, just a few months prior, Chandra’s case received scant coverage, with the loudest of outcries over her murder coming from the LGBTQIA+ community in Kenya. One might argue that such international coverage is better late received than never, as it sets in motion the wheels of justice and further fuels public outcry. But the question remains after all is said and done, will anything change?
Mingled in with the cries for justice, are voices insisting that Lumumba, like many other victims who have suffered similar fates, brought their tragedy upon themselves. The sentiment still prevails that if you are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, then it is a choice, and as such you deserve any sort of punishment or fate society deems fit to hand down to you. This is the same argument used to justify instances of rape where some claim that if the victim had been more modestly dressed, then the rape wouldn’t have occurred. The victim called attention to herself somehow, and in so doing triggered that male instinct that we hold so dear in many African cultures of giving in to “sexual temptation”, somehow making the assailant a victim of evolutionary biology while turning the victim into the culprit– he just couldn’t help it, the devil had a hold of him, he is just a man, you know how men are…!
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This is despite mountains of evidence showing that many a time, the only thing needed for a rape to occur is for the woman to be, well, a woman and possibly in a diminished state of power. The case of the female motorist who was sexually harassed by a gang of bodaboda riders along Forest Road, which prompted great public outcry, is just one example of how unprotected women are in Kenya. Such cases of sexual harassment are often accompanied by femicide, which, again is always explained away as a provocation against men that led to a fatal conclusion. In cases of femicide, as a BBC documentary on the gruesome murder of athletic champion Agnes Tirop shows that a woman just has to be successful to incur the wrath of a man, including a significant other. Tirop’s murder is one of many such cases in Kenya that highlight the plight of women in Kenya. And yet, among the voices claiming that what happened to Lumumba was divine justice, are Kenyan women.
Media sources, too, have joined in the fray, stubbornly using the wrong pronouns when reporting on Lumumba’s murder despite their being non-binary. And even after they were killed because of their identity, it is still not recognized or acknowledged. In an article published by Classic 105, the author continually refers to Lumumba as “she”, negating their experience, and in some ways erasing the reason why they suffered such a horrible fate.
In a series of tweets, Kenyan Twitter user and Queer rights activist, @DecolonialBruja, echoed our fears of lack of protection and sheer vulnerability as Queer Kenyans saying, “Sheila and I are both 25 and lesbians. I can’t rest because I am one statistic away from being this,” while also taking the Kenyan police force to task on not providing Lumumba’s family with answers concerning their gruesome murder. Lumumba’s mother divulged the horrifying state of their body which had stab wounds in several places including in both eyes, while their head showed signs of blunt force trauma leading to her death through exsanguination.
Lumumba’s mother’s cries for justice as she wept on national TV are all too familiar to many of us, as we live in the constant fear that our mothers will, one day, have to deal with the fact that someone saw it fit to take their child out of this world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Her tears remind me of each time my mother would urge me to please take care when leaving the house which we both understood was code for “please come back alive.”
One might also ask what such a death has to do with Queer Kenyans like us who are so removed by living abroad. And the answer is simple. It is a brutal reminder of what we left behind and what many of us actively ran away from; of a fate that awaits us should we ever return, and a constant worry while we are abroad, because relocation does not augment our identities and orientations, but further compounds them in conjunction with our race.
There is always someone or something somewhere that reminds you of your place at the bottom of the societal totem pole in your country. Just a few years ago, a stranger in a nightclub in Beijing who introduced himself as a fellow Kenyan reminded me that were we back home, he would have been the first to “weka tairi” or burn me alive using a car tire, a remark he made breezily as he continued to dance next to me. We too live in a state of paranoia, afraid of the dangers that abound in our adoptive countries, and too terrified to return home.
Lumumba’s murder has once again highlighted the various states of “unliving” that Queer people have to endure in Kenya. For many who come out, they are ex-communicated by family, and for those who are tolerated, should such a tragedy happen then family members ashamedly accept the events and hope to quietly move on, and for those who are accepted, their families live under constant fear, always expecting the worst and too pessimistic to hope for the best because we know our country well enough to never expect much. Lumumba did not deserve such a fate, and their killers must be brought to justice. And if their death serves a purpose, then let it be that Kenyans and the rest world alike begin to recognize the lives of terror that we Queer people live, and give us the right to live without violence.
Acknowledging our humanity should not be an impossible task and protecting every citizen under the law should not be a privilege but a right. And just as no one deserves such a horrendous end, no one deserves to live a life of constant degrees-of-separation evaluating, trying to figure out just how far from a violent end one is daily.
Photos: Unsplash, Courtesy of Twitter, Njeri Wa Migui
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