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.  


DAY FOUR: Sacrificeable bodies: gender-based violence against LGBTIQ+ people and displacement

Within debates around displacement, gender-based violence is conflated with violence against cisgender and heterosexual women. In this piece, Tina Dixson argues for the need to meaningfully engage with LGBTIQ+ communities’ experiences of displacement.

Tina Dixson (formerly co-founder Forcibly Displaced People Network)

Featured image credits: Renee Dixson

Sexual and gender-based violence are manifestations of power and an enforcement of the patriarchal order where rigid and harmful gender norms and binaries permeate relationships, and racial hierarchies are created. Perpetrators, mostly men, use their power and control to create a world where all women exist to serve their needs, and where toxic masculinity allows no divergence from a rigid sex binary. Violence is inflicted on LGBTIQ+ communities as a tool of punishment for defying this patriarchal order.

Yet in the context of displacement, gender-based violence is often conceptualised as violence against women, meaning those who are cisgender and heterosexual.

Queer and trans refugee women are rarely seen as legitimate victims of displacement. Their experiences are marginalised and their gender and sexuality are deemed private or irrelevant, if not the very cause of their displacement. In describing drivers of displacement of LGBTIQ+ people in their Age, Gender and Diversity policy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) writes that violence against this community happens “due to their sex, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity”. In other words, a victim is blamed for causing violence by simply being who they are, and not because violence is inflicted by the racist, homophobic and transphobic patriarchy.

There is evidence that LGBTIQ+ people experience familial (eg. forced marriages, ‘honor’ killings), societal (eg. conversion practices, stoning or ‘social cleansing’) and state violence (eg. imprisonment, perpetrator impunity or death penalty), which are drivers of displacement. Despite this violence continuing throughout their displacement  and in settlement, LGBTIQ+ refugees exist in the “zone of nonbeing”.

Françoise Vergès writes that “trans people, queer people, male and female sex workers are simply bodies to rape, traffic, torture, kill”. They are sacrificeable. They are blamed for the violence they endure. Their extinction becomes the norm.  

While gender-based violence marks the everyday for LGBTIQ+ people, especially those who are displaced, paradoxically they are excluded from how displacement is imagined. In writing about sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women, Jane Freedman categorises women who are traveling alone in the following heteronormative way: “women are travelling alone because they are single, or because they have lost their husbands during the war”. This indifference to experiences of gender-based violence against LGBTIQ+ people spans from community organisations to the UN. In 2011, I was an NGO delegate presenting a shadow report on the human rights violations against of lesbian, bisexual and trans women in Ukraine in front of the Committee operating under the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. A day before, a Committee member from Brazil approached me during breakfast in my hotel. ‘Lead with stories, explain the impacts violence and discrimination has on women, only then mention their sexuality, and only in passing’ she said to me. Thinking about violence inflicted on these women (and very soon myself), we cannot and should not separate their gender from their sexuality. Both constitute the experience of violence.

Years after and now in my own displacement, UN rhetoric has not changed. In 2017, I was invited to join a Gender Audit team, led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Forced Migration Research Network, to take part in the development of the Global Compact on Refugees. What offered a unique opportunity to finally make LGBTIQ+ displacement visible became an experience of silencing. Many countries never mentioned this cohort. When Western countries did, this was seen as an imposition of their values and issues that are not relevant to some bigger cause. It is no surprise that this issue became one of the first to be dropped during the negotiations process. It did not matter where you were in the room as an LGBTIQ+ refugee. You were always not the right kind of a refugee.

As a result, the final text of the Global Compact on Refugees not only omits any references to these communities but importantly creates a normative understanding of concepts such as ‘vulnerable groups in displacements’, ‘survivors of gender-based violence’, ‘specific needs in displacement’ and so on. It moves away from allowing to fit yourself in as an LGBTIQ+ refugee when your experience is mentioned as ‘other status’ in a long list of diversity characteristics to a complete silencing and fixed definitions. For example, persons with specific needs are defined as: “children, including those who are unaccompanied or separated; women at risk; survivors of torture, trauma, trafficking in persons, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse or harmful practices; those with medical needs; persons with disabilities; those who are illiterate; adolescents and youth; and older persons”. You do not have access to words, let alone protection.

Trying to bring attention to the issues of LGBTIQ+ displacement and the extent of gender-based violence inflicted, you always hit a brick wall. Within mainstream feminism in a country such as Australia, most morning teas, report launches and parliament events during the 16 days of activism will neglect to meaningfully engage with anything other than whiteness, heterosexuality, cisgenderism and citizenship.

Within displacement activism, again heteronormativity will prevail. Still so much research on displacement that always claims to offer new and comprehensive ways of looking at this issue neglects including sexuality and gender as inherent and constituent parts of one’s selfhood, one’s displacement journey, and most importantly one’s feeling of safety and belonging. Neither acknowledges that homo- and transphobia are a feminist issue and are in turn an anti-racism and decolonial issue, and that neither of these social justice struggles can be completed in isolation.

Where LGBTIQ+ displacement is mentioned, it is either reduced to an anomaly (something so rare that it is not worthy of attention) or racialised communities are being blamed for their ‘backwardness’ when it comes to LGBTIQ+ equality.

What is missing is an honest reflection on the impact of colonisation and the importation of homophobia and transphobia onto communities who used to celebrate and honour sexual and gender diversity.

Mikki Kendall writes that “entitlement, intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, aggression and sexual violence inside and outside marginalised communities are the antisocial behaviours that patriarchal systems create” regardless of the countries location. Instead of achieving safety, marginalisation is being perpetuated.  For as long as we think of some as more deserving of protection than others simply because of who they are, violence and domination will prevail and we will not achieve justice for anyone.


You can learn more on how to work inclusively and meet the needs of LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people by passing this free training:

Author’s Bio

Tina Dixson is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University researching the lived experiences and construction of narratives on queer and trans women’s forced displacement and violence. Tina’s research focuses on trauma theory, gender studies, migration studies and queer theory. She has contributed to a range of work on LGBTIQ+ displacement within Australia and internationally.

In 2012 Tina and her partner Renee Dixson became displaced due to their LGBTIQ+ human rights work in Ukraine and settled in Australia. Tina co-founded Forcibly Displaced People Network, the first registered LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisation in Australia, with her partner Renee Dixson in 2020. When Tina stepped down from her role with the Network, Renee Dixson became the current chair.