DAY EIGHT: Bodies at the Border: reflections on LGBT+ Ugandan refugees in Kenya 

Through their research project ‘Bodies at the Border’ funded by the British Academy, Bompani, Camminga, and Marnell reflect on the different forms of care, religious experiences, and support that are needed by Ugandan LGBT+ displaced communities in Kenya.

Barbara Bompani, B Camminga, John Marnell

Featured image credits: Nature Network in Nairobi

The last decade has witnessed a sharp rise in homophobia and transphobia in Africa, including the adoption of discriminatory legislation and the emergence of government-initiated crackdowns. This politicisation of sexual and gender rights is often presented as a moral crusade[1] and is enacted with the support of many religious and cultural leaders across the continent[2]. Consequently, an ever-increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people are leaving their homes to seek protection elsewhere.  

Image credits: John Marnell
Ugandan sexual discrimination and LGBT+ displacement in Kenya 

In the aftermath of the passing of the Anti-homosexuality Act (AHA) in March 2014 in Uganda[3], the first group of LGBT+ Ugandan asylum seekers in Kenya made themselves known to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Their existence highlighted a significant geo-political tension: Kenya’s domestic legislation does not recognise LGBT+ rights, while the UNHCR – through its mandate of international protection – does.

To resolve this, the UNHCR established what can be understood as a parallel legal regime, providing financial support and safe housing for LGBT+ claimants and fast-tracking them for resettlement. Expedited resettlement meant that the government and local communities were not too concerned with the lasting cultural impact of recognising these refugees and were even less concerned with providing support. However, in the wake of COVID-19, the heightened securitisation of borders in the Global North and diminishing places abroad for resettlement, these refugees must now remain in Kenya for extended periods. In the absence of access to the already strained structures of support which non-LGBT+ refugees rely on, such as in-country ethnic communities, religious groups or family, findings from our project suggest that LGBT+ refugees have had to create and foster new forms of care with what little resources they have available to them. 

Home and homemaking  
Image credits: Nature Network in Nairobi

A strategy in which this is visible is the self-funding of safehouses. Unable to reside in Kenya’s refugee camps due to discrimination[4], some LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya have been able to team up and rent houses on the outskirts of Nairobi through self-organisation and fundraising on platforms such as GoFundMe[5]. Difficult to reach, behind high walls, and often at the very end of dirt roads with a distinct absence of neighbours, these spaces have become critical safe havens for the LGBT+ refugee community in an otherwise largely hostile environment.

Safe houses, however, are not just homes where residents wait out their time. They are microcosms of possibility as they transition from meeting spaces to arts-based therapy centres to makeshift churches to ballrooms to boardrooms to fashion houses. Crucially they are places of nurture and community care existing only as long as the period of time between police raids or the next eviction by a suspicious landlord[6].

Image credits: Nature Network in Nairobi
Spirituality and religion 

Another important care strategy in the everyday lives of Ugandan LGBT+ refugees, a community coming from a highly religious country, is the spiritual and religious sphere. This can be complex given religion is in part a cause of their displacement[7], but at the same time something which they do not always abandon; although how their understand and practice their faith may transform. Religion in this context is neither entirely ‘positive’, a source of social capital as often articulated by development and migration studies[8], nor ‘negative’, a critical component of the worldview that institutionalises and normalises homo- and transphobia[9],

These complexities mean that displaced people may reject their own religion or develop more personal forms of spiritual identity without joining formal religious communities. Most of the displaced LGBT+ people who participated in this project described themselves as remaining religious but divorced from organised religion because of the fear of being exposed again to trauma or further persecution.

Individual prayer and reading of sacred texts in their transitional (but often lengthy) time spent in Kenya were described as an opportunity to rebuild a joyful relationship with God, something that ‘was taken away from them’ in their country of origin, but they remained distant from and wary of attending churches and mosques.  

Pushing our thinking further  

The transient and precarious situation of Ugandan LGBT+ displaced people in Kenya create conditions that necessitate the building of different forms of care and support that in some ways challenge conventional ideas of family, social networks, and of religious experience with regards to those communities. This gives us fresh perspectives on new forms of kinship, domesticity and care within displaced communities affected by sexual and gender-based violence.

[1] Kintu D. 2018 The Ugandan morality crusade: the brutal campaign against homosexuality and pornography under Yoweri Museveni. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.

[2] van Klinken & Chitando E. (eds) 2016. Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa. London: Routledge. 

[3] Nyanzi S. & Karamagi A. 2015 ‘The social-political dynamics of the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda’. In Agenda. Empowering women for gender equity, vol. 29, issue 1, 24-38. 

[4] Camminga, B. 2020. ‘Encamped within a Camp: Transgender Refugees and Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya)’. In Invisibility in African Displacements, edited by Jesper Bjarnesen and Simon Turner, 36–52. London: Zed Books.

[5] Camminga, B. 2021. ‘“Go Fund Me”: LGBTI Asylum Seekers in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’. In Waitinghood: Unpacking the Temporalities of Waiting and Irregular Migration, edited by Christine M. Jacobs, Shahram Khosravi and Mary-Anne Karlsen, 131–49. London: Routledge.

[6] Camminga, B. 2020. ‘Encamped within a Camp: Transgender Refugees and Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya)’. In Invisibility in African Displacements, edited by Jesper Bjarnesen and Simon Turner, 36–52. London: Zed Books.

[7] Bompani B. 2016. ‘For God and for My Country’. In edited by van Klinken A. and Chitando E. Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa. London: Routledge. 

[8] Sanchez M. et al. 2019. Immigration Stress among Recent Latino Immigrants: The Protective Role of Social Support and Religious Social Capital’. In Social Work in Public Health, vol. 34, issue 4, 279-292. Hagan J. & Ebaug HR. 2003. ‘Calling upon the Sacred: Migrants’ Use of Religion in the Migration Process’. In International Migration Review, vol. 37, issue 4, 1145-1162. Saunders J. et al (eds) 2016. Intersections of Religion and Migration. Issues at the Global Crossroads. London/New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

[9] Kaoma A. 2018. Christianity, Globalization, and Protective Homophobia: Democratic Contestation of Sexuality in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: Palgrave-MacMillan. 

Authors’ Bios

Bodies at the Border: Hostility, Visibility and the Digital Voices of LGBT+ Refugees in Kenya  is a research project generously funded by the British Academy (January 2021- December 2022) that brings together researchers from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh and from the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.  

Barbara Bompani (she/her) is a Reader in Africa and International Development at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on the intersection between religion, politics and development in Africa and on the many ways religion shapes the lives of African citizens.  

B Camminga (they/them) is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. They work on issues relating to gender identity and expression on the African continent with a focus on transgender migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  

John Marnell (he/him) is a researcher and PhD candidate at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research uses creative methodologies (visual, narrative and embodied) to explore the everyday lives of LGBTIQ+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  


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