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Meet the face of Kenyan LGBT+ activism — An interview with Denis Nzioka

More than 10 years ago, Denis Nzioka stepped up to represent the LGBT+I community, whose voice was still non-existent in Kenya. He was the first gay man to be interviewed on TV without the benefit of anonymity. He had to face threats, intimidations as well as an assassination attempt, all coming from within a Kenyan society rooted in homophobic culture. However, he carries on standing strong against bigots and has now decided to release a new book — a collection of essays written by Kenyan allies which he deems are “equally important, in conversations around sex, and sexuality.”

He agreed to speak to BENDER about this promising new project:

Denis Nzioka in his blue suit


Mr Nzioka, thank you for speaking to us. Can you tell us more about the aim of this new book?

The book is meant to do several things, chief among them showcase and appreciate the efforts of allies who are doing amazing work, in their own way, for inclusion, and creating awareness around LGBTQI and Sexual Orientation Gender Identity or Expression Issues (SOGIE). No one has ever documented the work of allies in Kenya, and there was this gap that needed to be filled. In addition, the book is meant to further conversations we have around LGBTQI rights – to show that the pursuit for human rights is not just something LGBTQI activists are doing on their own, but they have a pool of friends, family, acquaintances who are supporting their efforts. 


What’s the best definition of an ally for you?

An ally is anyone who supports equal civil rights, gender equality, and the LGBTQI social movement, and challenges the hetero-normative, patriarchal, capitalist, and other interlocking systems of oppression that continue to put down, silence, and shame LGBTIQ persons for who they are, among other injustices. Allies believe LGBTQI people face discrimination, and thus are socially and economically disadvantaged. They aim to use their position to fight against these injustices and raise awareness on the realities of LGBTQI persons, while promoting the human, and health rights of all persons.


What do you think of people who claim to be allies when they have nothing to show for it? 

An ally, like most people, is judged by their actions rather than their words. We know of so many allies who are supportive of our rights as long as they are in a meeting that we invite them too. But once they leave the room, they cannot publicly speak. A case in point are clerics, and politicians.

Allies need to promote dialogue, correct misconceptions, and protect the dignity of queer persons. In whatever way they do it, that is what matters.

In meetings we invite them to, they are welcoming, and say the rights things. But once they are out in public, or in their pews, they either refuse to talk, or change their wording to fit their audience. An ally is not just an external show but a change of heart — a strong belief that exhibits itself in their words, and action, and defense of queer persons in whatever way. Allies need to promote dialogue, correct misconceptions, and protect the dignity of queer persons. In whatever way they do it, that is what matters.


How did you have the idea for the collection? 

I have worked in queer activism for 15 years now. Most of my engagement has been with LGBTQI persons, and activists. In that time, I have met and interacted with wonderful allies — people who do not identify as queer but who were passionate about rights for LGBTQI persons. It was a grandmother who accepted their gay grandson, a workmate who protected their trans colleague from insults, or a priest who preaches about inclusion. These are stories that needed to be documented, to be shared, to be highlighted.


What do you think allies bring to the conversations around sexuality and homophobia?

Allies are uniquely placed to use their spaces and platforms to discuss and promote conversations around sex and sexuality. They are uniquely positioned to inform, direct, and promote open dialogues wherever they are. By doing so, they can respond to some of the reservations that the general population may have on SOGIE and LGBTQI. They are the main drivers the front runners of these debates. And so they can relate to whoever they speak with. 


You have said in your website that “LGBTQI voices are virtually non-present,” why not choose to make a collection of essays from members of the LGBTQI community?
By this statement, I meant that there is no visibility to queer voices — even though they are many — from books, to activists, to organisations. However, like a multi-sectoral effort, we need to highlight spaces, and voices that are often not considered, or which have been there, and are not documented, hence why it was important for me to point the lens to these unique people who are fighting our fight in their own spaces.


My efforts, small as they are, compliment the ongoing efforts by these passionate, and energetic LGBTQI activists and organisations. And it is these small things that add up to make the change we want to see. 


My efforts, small as they are, compliment the ongoing efforts by these passionate, and energetic LGBTQI activists and organisations. And it is these small things that add up to make the change we want to see. 


Would there have been negative consequences for the Kenyan queer writers who may have stepped up for a project of this kind?

Now, we have many Kenyan queer writers who chose not to publicly identify as queer. This is for their safety, some do not want to ‘out’ themselves. Some would maybe want to hide their identities, and this is understandable. Kenyan society still is homophobic, and dangerous if one is openly gay or lesbian. But to ensure that queer voices are also highlighted, the ball is now with me to see if I can do a second book — exclusively to queer Kenyan writing. 

How do you select the allies who will be part of the book?

The call was made publicly (online, and social media) and this was a risky move as the call went viral all over the country. I was inundated with questions, hate mail, and, surprisingly, some positive reviews. Allies had to submit testimonies, opinions, and commentaries, visual art, non/fiction stories, photography, and poetry, among others. I am thankful we received wonderful responses from a variety of persons — family members, clerics, artistes, journalists, and students. 


Why is it so important for you to speak up as a gay activist and represent the Kenyan LGBTQI voices?

For far too long, LGBTIQ voices have been non-existent in Kenya’s public and open spaces. For years, the media branded us as ‘secretive’, ‘cult’ or ‘recruiters’ and so to change these conversations, it was important to bring a face of this community to the front.

I know what it is like to be silenced, to live in fear, to be discriminated. I fight for LGBTQI rights so that no one faces what I faced growing up. 

Me, and a couple of other young, daring, and bold activists decided to engage in such spaces — we did interviews, wrote articles, promoted positive portrayal – and this is what we have been doing since then. I identify as gay.I know what it is like to be silenced, to live in fear, to be discriminated. I fight for LGBTQI rights so that no one faces what I faced growing up.

Denis Nzioka playing piano

What kind of dilemmas have you faced because of your openness about your sexuality but also your activism?

Where do I even begin?! 

I have been shunned by some of my family members, including being branded a shame. In addition, in school, I was unfairly targeted for being openly gay, and I was the butt of jokes all through high school. Getting work was also difficult, as no one wanted to employ a ‘homo’. Entering activism, I faced hostilities for going public on TV and radio. I received hate mail, death threats, and bullying. I was evicted three time from my homes after my landlords got to see the interviews I did on TV. I have been branded, even within my own queer community, many unsavoury things. As an activist, I do not earn a salary, I do not have employment, so making ends meet is often a challenge.

Things took a nasty twist in 2016, when I survived an assassination attempt as I was going home. A shot was fired at the car I was in, resulting in an accident. This came after several online threats from unknown people after I exposed a cartel of police officers who were blackmailing queer people. But this is nothing compared to the emotional and physical drain, including depression, that I have endured due to the nature of my work. 


How do the threats and intimidations make you feel?

Back then it took a toll on my mental health — I was constantly living in fear. Right now, they have largely reduced as I also reduced my publicity. Occasionally someone will send nasty comments, or veiled threats online, as this is a platform anyone can be anonymous. I often track these. I am now careful about where I am, or who I am with, and have taken some steps to ensure my personal safety — like not driving at night, not publicly revealing where I am or if I am traveling or to where. 


I was constantly living in fear.


What are your goals as a gay activist? 

I want to ensure that every LGBTQI person accepts who they are, and are comfortable enough to pursue their lives unhindered, unashamed. I want no one to go through what I went through or what I am going through — living under threats, living in fear, living in hiding to avoid being killed. This is not how humans should live. 


Was your church accepting of your sexuality and LGBTQI activism?

The Church as an institution, no! The Catholic church in Kenya is yet to be open about sexuality, leave alone LGBTQI. However, I have made wonderful allies within the Catholic church — seminarians, deacons, priest and bishops — who are welcoming, positive, and open about acceptance. Most do this by having an open-door policy, or hearing confessions of LGBTQI persons. They wish they could do more, or even come out, but the system and the institution do not allow it. And I think that is what is key — that there is a difference between the institution and the people who are part of it. I try to connect with and support these church allies in connecting them to queer people. Most are willing to accompany LGBTQI persons in their journeys of faith. 


I understand that you also campaign to get sex workers basic human right, why is that? 

“Sex workers’ rights are human rights,” “Gay rights are human rights,” was often our rallying call for years. But this has broadened to be just human rights for all. Sex workers also face the same challenges we queer people face – stigma, shame, being silenced, etc. Our challenges are similar. So, even fighting for sex workers’ rights I realised that we all face the same oppression. And mark you, I not only advocate for LGBTQI and sex workers but also advocate for people living with HIV, refugees and immigrants, people who live with a disability, albinos, and people who use or inject drugs. I think after all these years fighting oppression, I realise there are others who face the same, and who need allies. I too, am an ally to them. And that is why I am writing this book.


This collection of essays is due to be published in July.

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