, MOMBASA, Kenya, Dec 1 – The coastal town of Mombasa is best known for its scenic white sandy beaches, great food that gently flirts with the tongue and perhaps the friendly nature of its people.
But for many, little is known about the alleged violations of human rights that would make even the strongest of hearts shed a tear.
And less is perhaps known of the dangers of the high risk sexual behaviors that are sometimes synonymous with such leisurely beautiful towns.
“It is very hard for us to access treatment because of our sexual orientation and we are ignored in the country’s HIV awareness and prevention campaigns. And you see I am a gay sex worker and we engage with all kinds of people including married men with families. This is why people keep spreading the disease.”
Those are the words of 23 year old John who would easily pass for a woman. Clad in tight jeans, two shiny studs and perfectly done eyebrows, his thoughts seem far away… as if deeply engrossed on what the future holds for him.
He claims that he has so far contracted two Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) due to the nature of his work which went away after self medicating. But he is yet to test for HIV/AIDS.
For him, self medicating and herbs provide a quick fix-it to any STI-related symptoms and are by far better than the public hospital treatment – which is what he can barely afford.
“On a good night, I get like four clients and sometimes by the time I come across the fourth client, I don’t have any other condoms and I have to improvise. This means using a nylon paper bag for the same purpose as the condom,” he says with finality.
Cinderella, another gay commercial sex worker says running into the police is his worst nightmare. And the look in his eyes tells it all.
“Sometimes when we get arrested, the police officer (depending on his/her preference) declines to take the monetary bribe and they insist on sleeping with us. But most don’t use condoms. If you insist on a condom, you are locked up and lose out on business,” he says sadly.
Although the 20-year old has danced with discrimination all his life due to his sexual orientation, he has never reported it to the authorities. For him being molested, beaten and thrown out of his rental home is nothing compared to contracting HIV/AIDS.
That fear is evident in his voice: “We face so many challenges but we have to take heart because you see, this is life and we have to take risks.”
John on the other hand blames poverty and the high unemployment rates in Mombasa for the high-risk sexual behaviour. He says that he has to go to extremes to ensure that he has a roof over his head, some clothes to keep him warm and a plate of food to keep him going.
“Some people believe that gay people don’t spread the HIV virus such that you will find a man offering Sh10,000 for sexual relations as long as you don’t use a condom. Then if you ask for a condom, he gives you Sh1,000. Believe me, if you are the sole provider for your family, you will go for the Sh10,000 offer,” he states.
This year alone, John has had unprotected sexual relations with more than 10 men.
And with this revelation the reality of a study conducted in 2008 dubbed Modes of Transmission Survey by a consortium of institutions including the World Bank, UNAIDS and the National AIDS Control Programme begins to sink in.
The report indicated that 15 percent of all new HIV infections are transmitted by men who have sex with men. Sixty percent of these men are in heterosexual relationships.
In a previous interview with Capital News, University of Nairobi researcher Preston Izulla said Kenya had largely ignored the link between homosexual relations and the transmission of HIV.
“We have small studies that show prevalence of about 47 percent but also as low as 12 percent in some regions in comparison to the general prevalence of HIV of seven percent in the population. Clearly there is a HIV crisis that is going on among men who have sex with men,” he explains.
He adds that the high risk sexual relations between homosexual persons easily transmit HIV and should not be discriminated against in any human rights matters. He however places more emphasis on the discrimination meted against them in the provision of medical care.
He observes that the risk they pose to persons with heterosexual relations can no longer be ignored.
“The anal canal has a high number of white blood cells that facilitate the transmission of HIV, it is dry and has a thin mucus membrane which can easily break. So this is the primary risk when having sexual intercourse irrespective of whether it is between a man and a man or a woman and a man,” he explains.
In his view the incessant abuse of the human rights of homosexual persons on any grounds whatsoever will soon catch up with the entire public.
Forty-two year old Jimmy who has been married for four years but is also gay attests to this.
“My wife has no idea what my sexual orientation is. My boyfriend comes over and my wife gladly receives him because she believes we are very good friends but in reality, we are more than that. When I escort him after his visits, we go to his house and engage in sexual acts,” he notes.
Although he claims that he always uses a condom with his boyfriend, he says that he never uses any with his wife because he does not want to raise any suspicions.
“Sometimes I feel like I want to see my wife and then I have sex with her… sometimes I want to see my boyfriend and the same thing happens. I only got married because there is no way my family would accept me for who I am,” he explains.
Meanwhile 25 year old Erica, a lesbian is in a sexual relationship with two women. One of the women is married.
“I have a 27 year old girl friend and a side kick as in a sugar mummy but they don’t know each other. My sugar mummy is married with two children and yes we engage in sexual acts. And when my girlfriend comes over the same thing happens,” she says
She adds that Kenyans should stop burying their heads in the sand and accept the reality of the health dangers posed to heterosexual couples by homosexual persons.
“I don’t know what my sugar mummy’s husband does in her absence but I know me and her get intimate. So people should just know that as much as they would like to pretend gay people don’t exist and unless action is taken now, more people will die of the HIV/AIDS scourge,” she notes.
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights which is also following up on the rights of gay persons notes that the health risks they pose are just as important as their human rights violations.
Commissioner Lydia Gachoya notes that Kenyans are a fairly traditional and conservative society. But she also knows that people should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
In her opinion, Kenya might not be ready to accept homosexual relations, but she cannot ignore the health risks they pose.
In an October interview, Ms Gachoya also said that Kenyans quickly passed a harsh judgment against the Special Programmes Minister Esther Murugi when she intimated that gay persons also needed to be included in the HIV awareness campaign messages.
“She (Ms Murugi) cannot abstain from mentioning these issues because they involve gay people. And she did not say that she is legalising homosexuality or that she endorses marriages between two men. All she was saying and bringing to our attention is what we already know,” she said.
Meanwhile Ms Murugi, on her part, had also maintained that she will continue defending the health rights of the sexual minority groups.
She says that Kenyans cannot ignore the health concerns raised by gay persons and that burying heads in the sand will not make the danger go away.
“My upbringing does not approve of gay marriage or even homosexuality so I don’t approve of it. But these people are here with us and I do not know whether you want us to kill them or what these people who are making so much hullabaloo want us to do with them,” she
The issue of HV/AIDS falls squarely in her docket and although she observes that homosexual relations go against Biblical practices and the beliefs of the traditional African society, every Kenyan has a role to play in ensuring the number of those infected with HIV remains does not increase.
“Someone does not become gay or a lesbian overnight. So we as parents have also failed because by the time someone reaches the age where he/she identifies himself/herself as homosexual the parents must have seen the trends. The question is: what were we doing to ensure that they don’t go that direction?” she asks.
She also says that gay persons should be empowered to be wary of Sexually Transmitted Infections.
John agrees with her remarks and he further proposes that the government tackles poverty in his region and employ more youths.
“If we had someone to advise and counsel us, I’m sure we would be able to make the right decision. For example female commercial sex workers have already been identified and proper strategies have been put in place to address their health needs so why can’t the same be done for all gay people? Because when we engage in sexual acts, we don’t do it alone,” he concludes.
Whether or not we accept sexual minorities into our communities remains to be seen but their high-risk sexual behaviors might soon catch up with Kenyans because we just might be sitting on a ticking time bomb.