On a recent trip to Kenya, I sat with S., a gay refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the cramped, one-room apartment he shares with three friends, all straight. The four share a bed, and none know S. is gay. The floor is covered in a vibrant yellow vinyl, their belongings clutter every corner, and a tiny couch is crammed into the space between the bed and the door.
We were talking about what it’s like for him to be a gay refugee in a country that would rather not talk about refugees or gay people. Following the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi that killed more than 60 people and injured 175 others, Kenya began a serious crackdown on foreigners and demanded all refugees go to one of the country’s two refugee camps. In part, as a result of the efforts of religious groups both domestic and international, homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric has also been on the rise in recent years, as Global Post reported on June 15, 2015. Neither is good for S.’s sense of safety.
S. told me that he had been run out of his previous apartment by his landlord and a band of thugs after they found him and his then-boyfriend together. He showed me the scar where they beat him, and talked about what it’s like to share a bed with people who may wish you violence, or even death.
Then, his roommates walked through the open door.
I froze and S. immediately switched into a gregarious bravado, joking and laughing with his friends. The entire time we had been talking, I had been eyeing the open door, fearful that we might be overheard, and that the same violence S. was recounting to me would come to pass again. S., too, had been watching, but he took his friends’ entry in stride. Constant vigilance was a necessity for him.
So it was for every LGBT refugee I spoke with during two recent trips to Kenya reporting on their experiences. Security is of the utmost concern for them, and nearly every person I spoke with had a story of being attacked by neighbors or random people on the street. Most were living in some degree of hiding and were largely confined to their apartments while they waited out the resettlement process.
I had been connected to the LGBT refugees through another reporter, Jacob Kushner, with whom I was collaborating on a story about their experiences. He, in turn, had been introduced to the refugees by Victor Mukasa, the executive director of the Kuchu Diaspora Alliance USA, an LGBT diaspora group working with LGBT Africans. Throughout the process, the people we spoke with connected us to others, as is often the case.
Building trust among a group of people who have survived extreme trauma, often at the hands of their closest contacts, is no easy feat, and it is all the more challenging when day-to-day safety remains a serious concern. For LGBT-identifying journalists such as myself, being an LGBT reporter working on LGBT issues can be both a serious boon and a potential risk. I had told S. I was gay almost as soon as we met. As a photographer who frequently works on LGBT stories, I’ve found being gay and being forthright with my sources about my sexuality goes a long way toward making them feel comfortable sharing personal details. And in cases like my reporting outlined above, where security is such a fundamental concern, it lends me crucial credibility and the confidence that I won’t expose them. (I, too, know the stakes).
As always, and specifically in instances of trauma, where the authorities are hostile or pose a danger to victims, verification was an issue. Luckily, nearly every refugee I photographed during this project was in the process of having their LGBT refugee status vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and depending on how far along they were in the resettlement process, by the U.S. or another host country. This vetting typically involves lengthy interviews, pitting the claims of the would-be refugee against hundreds of similar stories told before theirs, as well as comparing their testimony to what is known about the conditions in their specific country for LGBT people. If their claims are deemed credible, they are given U.N. refugee status and moved to the next stage of the process.
Vetting and verifying the specifics of each person’s story is difficult but not impossible. Another refugee I met and photographed, Cynthia Ndikumana, is a lesbian refugee from Burundi. She was an LGBT activist in her home country, and spoke on BBC radio about being a lesbian there. In 2013, police arrested and beat her, and in late 2014, she fled Burundi in search of safety elsewhere. Because she was out in her home country, she had no problem being photographed and discussing her experiences on the record. Other refugees we met had similar situations. Many of the refugees we spoke with had been outed in the press in their home countries and had photos or videos of the relevant newspapers or television programs. Others had hospital or clinic reports and photos of the aftermath of police or mob violence.
But there were at least as many who preferred we use pseudonyms, nicknames or first initials, as much for the safety of their family members back home as for their own. And many of those stories had details that would be difficult to verify, and potentially put the subject in harm’s way. As much as possible, we sought out sources whose stories could be on the record and who had a body of evidence that we could refer to. Luckily, the refugee process generates a fair amount of it.
Recently, I was in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya, alongside the reporter with whom I am working, in the midst of a tense Q-and-A between us and the refugees, who were skeptical of our motives and our claims that we had their best interests at heart. “What do you know about the LGBT community?” one person demanded. I told them I was gay, and they burst into applause. OK, they all said, come talk to us.
Inge De Langhe, the senior protection officer at UNHCR who works closely with the LGBT refugees at Kakuma, had introduced us to these refugees. In the camp, the LGBT refugees, in this case all from Uganda, had been grouped together into a few small compounds to make it easier to monitor their safety. This had mixed effects in practice-other refugees who wished them ill knew where they lived, and in at least one case, set fire to their encampment, but the LGBT communities within the compounds could count on one another for security. As one Ugandan explained to us, even if they had been living separately, there was no way to live under the radar; since there is no war or ongoing crisis in Uganda, it was generally assumed in Kakuma that to be Ugandan was to be gay.
Still, the refugees stressed concern for their safety and the safety of those who remained in the countries they had fled. Within the compounds we could speak openly, but often they asked that their identities be obscured or faces hidden, and that we use their first initial or a nickname. Outside of Kakuma, interviews took place behind closed doors if their living spaces were secure, or in public places that were away from prying ears, such as a park in the middle of Nairobi.
At a time when LGBT rights are in the news as never before, there is a large and growing appetite for stories about the LGBT experience in places such as Kenya, where the danger is acute and previously reported stories are scarce and often lack depth. The LGBT journalists have a real opportunity to create deep and meaningful coverage that is informed by their lived experiences.
But being an LGBT journalist has its disadvantages, too. A gay photographer based in the Middle East, who is working on a long-term project about LGBT refugees from countries in the region where homophobia is deeply entrenched, told me that although his sexuality has made it easier to get close to his subjects, it has also put him at risk.
“Of course, once the interviewee or subject of the photograph realizes the interviewer or photographer is somehow connected to them in terms of being LGBT, it automatically breaks down the barriers. There’s an added comfort factor when people realize you’re also gay,” said the photographer, who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns. But, he also worries about being a target himself. Though he would love to pursue this project in Iraq, he doesn’t think it would be safe for anyone involved. “The idea of doing something LGBT-related there makes me very fearful both for myself and my subject.”
His Middle East project began with documenting LGBT Iraqis fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Syria. Though there were risks (a Westerner photographing Iraqis in Syria drew unwanted attention), he says it wasn’t too difficult to find his way into the community. The real challenge was balancing safety with the need to make the most compelling image possible. “It’s a compromise between them understanding that you would like to take a photo that says something about their personality and their situation, but also something that you both feel respects them,” he said.
Recently, with the rise of the Islamic State group, his ability to pursue this and similar projects in the region has been greatly restricted, both out of fear for his subjects, but also, increasingly, for his own safety. He has turned down assignments in areas where he is worried that his sexuality might make him a target, and takes security precautions such as carrying around a photograph of a fake girlfriend and being discreet about what he shares on social media.
During my reporting process in Kenya, I interviewed a fringe right-wing politician who introduced a bill in that country’s parliament that called for the stoning to death of “local gays,” and he told me that Western gays that come to Kenya and promote homosexuality should also be killed. As we sat in a café in downtown Nairobi, he went on and on about how much the gays deserved death, not knowing that I was gay. Though I didn’t feel seriously at risk, it was yet another strong reminder that people in many countries across the world wish people like me harm.
Though everyone with whom I spoke talked about the ways identifying as LGBT made at least parts of the reporting process easier and knew the risks it posed, some were quick to point out that it also comes with other challenges beyond immediate risk. From an editorial perspective, Selly Thiam felt she was perceived as being unable to be produce quality, unbiased reporting about LGBT issues. Thiam is a Senegalese lesbian journalist and activist who works in Kenya and identifies as a member of the African diaspora. Earlier in her career, while working as a journalist in the U.S., she recalled pitching stories on Africa or queer issues and being told she couldn’t be objective, then having editors ask her to write stories about deadbeat dads in the black community. “It’s important that as journalists we complicate this idea of who can report what stories and that we complicate the idea that just because we are part of a community we can’t do our jobs properly, which is not true,” Thiam said.
She runs the oral history project None on Record, which began as a documentary project about LGBT Africans in the diaspora. Since then, it has evolved into a media advocacy group, producing its own documentaries, doing sensitivity training for local journalists, and bringing local LGBT people into the mainstream conversation in a variety of ways.
But Thiam also cautions against assuming too many commonalities because of a shared LGBT identity. “Definitely when people know that you identify as LGBT, particularly working in communities on the continent, it makes things a bit easier, but then there’s all these other things that come after that, like class, nationality, educational status, access to resources, language; there are just so many other things that make up a person, including their sexuality,” she said. Her point is that sexuality may help a reporter clear one hurdle, but many other barriers remain in forging a meaningful connection with a source, or in understanding their lived experiences with any nuance.
Thiam is entrenched in the communities where she works and is particularly concerned that people who parachute in-LGBT-identifying or not-without thinking about the safety of their subjects can do real harm. “The assumption that just because we’re all queer then we’re all gonna get along and get each other is just not…It can be dangerous. There have been queer journalists that have come in to do stories in Uganda and Kenya who have done more harm than good, because they think they know.”
Jake Naughton is a New York-based journalist focusing on LGBT and immigration issues. He contributes to The New York Times and his work has appeared in outlets including Al Jazeera America, Newsweek, and GlobalPost.