Nairobi, Kenya – Barry’s parents were murdered, his children poisoned, and he has been repeatedly raped because of his sexuality.
“I think it would be better if I died,” said the 23-year-old, who declined to give his real name. “I just think about drinking poison because of all the problems I have.”
Barry is a transgender Burundian man, living in Kenya as a refugee.
“I talk like a woman, but I have been like this since I was small. I tell myself God made me like this,” he said, dressed in a diamante-studded black halter top with neatly braided hair that reaches his shoulders.
“When they beat me, I try to stop being gay. I can’t … It’s something in your heart.”
Like many Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersexual (LGBTI) people in the East Africa region, he does not define his sexuality according to Western categories. Gay is the term most people use for anyone who is not heterosexual.
“When they beat me, I try to stop being gay. I can’t … It’s something in your heart.“
– Barry, transgender Burundian
In Burundi, as across most of Africa, same sex relations are illegal and homophobia is widespread.
When a work colleague in Burundi found out that Barry had slept with a man, he was chased by a mob, including police officers. He sought safety in his parents’ house, but another mob murdered them.
En route to Kenya with his wife and children, he was gang raped by four men. In a Kenyan refugee camp, he was beaten up and raped again, and his one- and four-year-old children were poisoned “so that they did not become gay like me”, he said.
Fortunately, his children survived, but in Nairobi, he is still not safe.
“If I go out, I will be killed,” he said.
Stigmatised and attacked
Kenya is a magnet for people fleeing persecution across the region – those escaping war in Somalia, the Sudans and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as political refugees from Ethiopia and Rwanda.
Its strong LGBTI movement also makes it slightly less dangerous for sexual minorities than neighbouring countries.
Still, homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison in Kenya. While no one has been convicted, the law makes it easy for police, neighbours and other refugees to blackmail, harass and kill sexual minorities.
A gay Somali refugee was doused in petrol and nearly set alight by a crowd of Somali youths before an older woman saved him, according to Human Rights First.
A gay refugee couple received threatening text messages saying, “you are recruiting our children to homosexuality and we will kill you”, a lawyer working with one of the men said.
“His partner was poisoned and he died … He [the surviving partner] got a text saying: ‘You are next.'”
With no one to protect them, LGBTI refugees try to remain invisible.
The majority do not know that persecution gives them grounds for international protection. LGBTI refugees can usually get fast-tracked for resettlement because their first country of asylum, Kenya, criminalises sex relations.
“They are scared to go and say [they are LGBTI] because the same homophobic attitude that is out there in the society is the same within the [refugee] agencies,” said the lawyer, who asked that she not be named for fear of a government crackdown on organisations aiding LGBTI people.
It took three months for Barry to tell the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) – which is responsible for granting refugee status – that he was transgender. Initially, he lied and said he was fleeing conflict in Burundi.
“I hid it from them [UNHCR]. I knew if they found out, they would chase me away,” he said. “Everyone who has found out that I am gay has tried to kill me and my family.”
It was only when he told the truth to refugee camp doctors, who were treating him for rectal bleeding and post-traumatic stress disorder, that he found out that he could claim asylum because of his sexuality.
LGBTI refugees usually only seek help when they are desperate.
“Most of them end up in sex work and get infected, get AIDS and die without any form of assistance,” said the lawyer.
“They are really traumatised. Most of them will say … ‘I cannot understand why God made me the way he made me. I would wish that I die and wake up ‘normal.'”
“Most of them end up in sex work and get infected, get AIDS and die without any form of assistance.“
– advocate for LGBTI people
Her organisation has rescued refugees who were being held as sex slaves.
“You will have sex with strangers, or anyone who is brought to you, and your host will make money out of it,” she said they are told.
Although there are many agencies assisting refugees in Kenya, hardly any focus on reaching out to LGBTI refugees.
In the last four years, the lawyer’s organisation has been contacted by about 200 LGBTI refugees. She believes there are hundreds more living in Kenya who could get help if they knew their rights.
The legal process often takes about two years, and her organisation only has two people working with LGBTI refugees. Only 45 have been resettled so far.
This article first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service