Unmasking the under world of male sex workers
By Monicah Mwangi
Dressed in tight fitting t-shirts and jeans, two young men are busy exchanging pleasantries at a corner in one of the night clubs n Nairobi. It is 10PM, the two seem too groomed for men. You can tell their faces have been heavily powedered, their lips evenly glossed and nails pedicured, but this two men are not bothered by the revellers who keep throwing glances at them.
This is what they do for a living ‘selling their bodied’. Gay commercial workers are taking the night life in Nairobi, Mombasa and other major towns in the country by storm. However, many people discuss the issue in hushed tones because it is a foreign concept that is ‘illegal’ and ‘immoral’.
A night out in the city revealed that these breed of young and energetic men have perfected the art of “selling their bodies”, to make a decent living. I approached the two men who, after long persuasions, agreed to an interview on condition that I use suedo names to conceal their identities.
We organised for an interview on a Monday evening a few weeks ago, we met in a restaurant of their choice in the CBD. I made my way to our meeting point not really knowing what to expect. I was anxious but my curiosity kept me going. At one dark corner of the club sat Mark and Ian (names withheld). We exchanged pleasantries and after a short while of ice-breaking, we got down to business.
Mark told me he grew up in the village, not far away from the city and since his teenage years, he knew he had strong feelings for boys and he tried to suppress his feelings because he did not know what people in the village would make of his behavior.
“I feared being discriminated upon and at times I thought I was not normal. When I came to Nairobi, I realised there were many people of my kind and because I come from a poor background, I knew I had to make a living no matter how. There is a high demand for same sex affairs in Nairobi and a friend of mine once offered to take me to an upmarket gig. On that night I got a client and made some good money,” he says shyly.
That was Mark’s ‘initiation’ into the world of gay commercial worker and with a broad smile he says, “I have been in this business for years now and it has earned me a good living. On average, I make between Sh2,000 and Sh5,000 per a two hours session. On a busy night I have at least more than one session and the price also depends on my negotiating power.”
Mark doesn’t have a day time job. He wakes up at 6pm especially on weekends, does his makeup and heads to Westlands, where he mostly operates. He makes me know that many of his clients are based in Westlands and other affluent estates within Nairobi.
His job, like any other, is met with a myriad of challenges. “I understand the importance of protecting myself from sexually transmitted diseases but there are clients who insist on not using protection. They offer to pay you more if you don’t use a condom. When things are tough, I am left with no option but to take the risk,” Mark says with a blank look on his eyes.
All this while, Ian does not say a word and as the mood on the table tenses up, maybe reflecting on the dangers they are exposed to, the stigma from the society and discrimination, he breaks the silence.
“Look at me. I am not so well educated and when I realised I had to fend for myself, I started out at downtown Nairobi. Let nobody lie to you that gays are rich people. Even low status people in society have gays. It is especially tough dealing with them because some refuse to pay you. You cannot report them to the police because this is an illegal business and others even beat you up when you aggressively demand for your money. So you see, there are so many difficulties but that doesn’t mean one should give up,” he says.
According to Peter Njane, the Director of Ishatar (a programme under Gay Kenya which deals with the health and social well-being of Men who have Sex with Men – MSM) the issue of gay sex workers is real and should not be ignored.
Though no research has been done to determine the number of gay sex workers in the country, Njane says a general plea was made for these group of people to register themselves and in six months, about 100 gay men had registered.
Njane says Ishtar, which is situated in Industrial Area, Nairobi, has 300 registered members. The organization gets funding from Western countries mostly the US.
“The funds we get are channelled to workshops to empower our members, counseling services because there is a lot of stigma in the society, we buy condoms and lubricants from South Africa which is very expensive. We encourage men who have sex with other men to do it safe,” Njane says.
Njane says apart from Nairobi, Mombasa has a high number of gay sex workers who need to be reached and encouraged to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/Aids. “As much as these people are looked down upon in society, they need to be encouraged to stay safe and protect themselves from diseases like Aids. It is also wrong for people to treat them inhumanly. We have had cases of police officers and council askaris beating gays and sexually assaulting them,” Njane says.
Njane, who informs me that he is also gay says Ishtar is working on a project to conduct counseling programmes for the members. This he says will go a long way in knowing how to protect themselves and leading a normal life.
“Due to the high rise of HIV infection by men who have sex with men, Ishtar is working hand in hand with the National Aids Control Council and they give us condoms and also do workshops to empower gay people on the importance of having safe sex. “We were happy when the National Aids Council recognized the vulnerable situation with our people and they agreed to work with us. This is a big leap forward,” Njane says.
According to Njane, the most difficult part of life for any homophobic/ heterophobic person is to break the news to his/her family.
“When I came to Nairobi, I did a lot of research on gays and I joined the Gays movement and in my activities, I one day appeared in the newspaper.
“My mum, who is a staunch Christian, called me confused and not able to speak. She asked me what was going on and I had no choice but to tell her the truth,” he remembers.
He says it took a long time for her mother to accept that he was gay and she may have been disappointed in me but she never disowned me. She however warned me never to expose myself to the media and “that’s why you are not going to take a photo of me for the sake of my family.”
I met Dennis Nzioka, a vocal and a force to recon with in the fight for rights in the ‘gay world’. Nzioka is the spokesperson of Gay Kenya
Just like Njane, his parents knew of his gay status through the media. He says for his family, it was not much of a surprise because his strong feelings towards boys had betrayed him when he was growing up. “Unlike boys my age who teased girls, I was always fond of boys.
As a teenager, I never introduced a girlfriend to any of my family members. I guess that gave it away,” Nzioka says.
He says the older generation reacts differently to same sex relationships, what can be called a new and Western trend in the African culture. He tells me his grandmother has been supportive and she has never treated him like a lesser person.
According to Nzioka, his family’s main concern was what their neighbours were going to make out of his “wayward lifestyle.” He says perceptions differ and the best the society can do is to be accommodative of homosexuals.
Nzioka says during Chief Justice Willy Mutunga’s vetting where the issue of him being gay was openly discussed, it provided an avenue for the homosexuals to be heard and not being treated as abnormal people. “We want people to know that we are human and we should not be judged by our sexual orientation,” Nzioka says.
A few months ago the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on violence and discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. It was the first time the UN had adopted a resolution on LGBT issues.
Nzioka says Gay Kenya was in full support of the petition though he agrees the government of Kenya did nothing to ensure the resolutions were adopted. He says the government needs to decriminalize homosexuality in Kenya or the resolutions will not be binding.
“Gay Rights are not new nor are they special rights. They are the normal rights enjoyed by you and the rest of the people,” he says adding that people homosexuals live a secret life for fear of being discriminated against or being treated like a criminal.