Safe space for gay men in Kenya

Eric, 19, has not told his family he is gay and has no intention of doing so because homosexuality is “against the rules of the rural community and society at large.”

Daniel, 20, plans to tell his family he is gay because he wants to put an end to the blackmail of his cousin, who has been demanding money and other items in return for his silence. Blackmail against gay men in Kenya is common.

Hasan, 28, told his family of his sexual orientation eight years ago, and his mother and brother support him and told him “to be who you are.” He attends a church that accepts him and at least three other gay men.

These three gay Kenyans are in very different places with regards to their openness of their sexual identities. But one thing they have in common is Men Against AIDS Youth Group (MAAYGO).

MAAYGO's moonlight outreach clinic in Kisumu’s nightclub district. (c) Corrie Wingate/International HIV/AIDS Alliance

“In 2003 to 2009, the majority of men who have sex with men were dying of AIDS and no one was helping them.”

— Kennedy

MAAYGO is working in Kisumu in western Kenya. The project offers a safe space for gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM). They come to MAAYGO for condoms, lubricants, counselling and testing. They also come for companionship and understanding, in a culture that too often judges and stigmatises them.

“MSM want to be who they are,” says Kennedy, programme coordinator of MAAYGO. “Our drop-in centre gave them a place where they can be themselves.”

Kisumu is the largest city in Nyanza Province, which has an HIV prevalence rate significantly higher (15.1%) than any other region of the country; Kenya’s national prevalence is 5.6%. And unlike Kenya as a whole, where HIV prevalence is dropping, Nyanza is one of two regions where it is increasing, according to the Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey 2012.

MSM, have a higher risk of contracting HIV. A key factor in this is because same-sex relationships are criminalised and stigmatised, which creates a barrier to accessing services.

MAAYGO has a variety of activities to reach MSM and ensure they have the health services and support they need:

  • MAAYGO’s five peer educators go out into the community to visit ‘hot spots’ where MSM gather to carry out HIV counselling and testing. The peer educators make a minimum of 20 new contacts each month.
  • MSM regularly come into MAAYGO’s drop-in centre for condoms, lubricants, counselling and testing.
  • MAAYGO does advocacy with local government and law enforcement to ensure that they understand the importance of working with, instead of against, MSM.
  • MAAYGO hosts a weekly radio show on Radio Osienala that explores issues related to MSM. The 50-minute show is a lively, educational and entertaining programme delivered in Luo, the main language of western Kenya.

It’s not easy work to carry out, in April 2014 MAAYGO’s offices were raided and equipment was stolen, forcing them to move to less suitable premises where it is no longer possible to carry out confidential counselling and testing.

But there is personal motivation to continue to find ways to make sure MSM can access their right to health.

“We’re doing it to prevent more friends from dying” explains Kennedy.

These activities are supported by the Alliance’s Men’s Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP) funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). SHARP is led by the Alliance and overseen in Kenya by the Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium (KANCO) and implementing organisations MAAYGO and ISHTAR.