Recently on a history-of-sexuality list, people complained about blanket statements regarding ‘Africans’, given the enormous diversity of people and cultures across the many countries on that continent. I agreed with the complaints, but at the same time I don’t care much for national orientations, either, as though people labelled Kenyan or South African exhibited a set of defining characteristics that can be pinned down, just because they were born there.
The following story is about one man in one city in one country, but for those of us who work in or study the sex industry anywhere in the world, it’s a familiar story. The headline emphasises the social status of the clients – as though it were big news – but there are other interesting details, which I’ve highlighted in bold.
Behind The Mask – a website magazine on lesbian and gay affairs in Africa
MOMBASA – 26 January 2009: Panning out to Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya, a young good-looking well-groomed man sits on a bamboo chaise lounge. He is a male sex worker, who caters only for male clientele. He has a slightly bored expression on his face, but is willing to talk about his lifestyle and line of work.
“I don’t know why they think there are only a pocketful of homosexuals in this country”, Brian mused before the interview even started, staring absentmindedly at his nails. “Our main market is not the white tourists who come down here. We cater for people in Nairobi, Meru and even Mandera!” He went on to say, in a slightly feminine tone, that last December he spent the entire month, fully paid, in Nairobi. “I had fun!” Brian enthused.
Brian is one of many male sex workers who cater exclusively to male clients. He regularly attends one of four health centres that serve MSM in the coastal town, set up with the help of the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICHR) an institution that teaches men about safe sex practices and offers occasional counselling. In a study published in the June 2007 edition of AIDS, researchers estimated that at least 739 MSM were selling sex to other men in and around the city of Mombasa, a “sizeable population that urgently needs to be targeted by HIV prevention strategies,” the research said.
24-year-old Brian says he initially got into the business to make money. “Nowadays sometimes I do it just for pleasure, but mostly it’s for the money. I work only five times a week,” he declared. Asked whether he is a homosexual Brian confided “I was raped by a neighbour when I was about eight years old and from that time I started getting sexual urges – more for men than women. I didn’t take any action after the rape, because I was threatened”, he revealed, explaining that he suffered emotionally for a while before coming to terms with it.
“I started actively going with boys when I was in secondary school. I was in a boarding school and I had about 40 boyfriends during my four years of studying there,” he said with a seemingly shy but proud expression. “I didn’t have sex with all of them, but I liked the romance. After college is when I came out and from then I would look for people who want serious relationships.”
Brian revealed that his first few relationships did not work. “Most people just wanted to have sex and then they would often cheat on me. I have never desired to have a sexual relationship with a woman though. Maybe one day I will, just to try.”
“In my business, I charge about KSH 1,200 per shot. But that’s on the lower side for the younger clients. I only give two shots, once at night and once in the morning. I don’t stretch myself.” “I don’t like old guys,” he confided with a low voice, “so with those ones I charge a bit extra, about KSH 2,500 and that is just for the night.” Brian says that despite the stigma that faces homosexuals, more specifically from society, police, and the church, their clientele is made up of people in these very segments.
It was revealed at a June 2007 conference on Peer Education, HIV and AIDS, in Nairobi, that MSM face high levels of stigma and discrimination. Agnes Runyiri of ICHR said at the forum that homosexuality is considered taboo, un-African and anti-Christian.
“It [homosexuality] is very common. The only problem is stigma. That is why we are scared to come out. But in a real sense, our clients are politicians, businessmen, religious leaders – I’m very sorry to say – but it’s true,” Brian pointed out. Since every business has its own down sides Brian narrated that “sometimes you get bad customers who pay you less than the agreed amount or disappear with your money.”
“Luckily, I have never had a violent customer although I was in a violent relationship once. He used to beat me up and say that it was because I had become naughty, that is why I had to break it off”, he said shrugging.
He also underlined that safe sex is key in his line of work, and even generally with men who have sex with men. “There is a safe clinic [ICHR] that I work with. I started as a peer educator, but since I have a background in journalism, I now work as a counsellor. We have very many gays, who are messing about and they don’t know that they are. We deal with prevention of HIV/AIDS and it is helping because many of us were dying.”
He says it’s unfortunate that homosexuals are mistreated in most health institutions, an issue which he thinks the government should look into. “I wish that the government would sensitise the whole country to accept that this thing [homosexuality] is there and we have to help these guys out. The more we push it under the table, the more we are going to die.”
“What we need is health rights, not even marriage rights because I don’t think even my family would allow me to do that [be a homosexual]. They need sensitisation. People don’t understand that we are normal human beings, it is just that our sexual preferences are different”, he concluded.