Kenyan queer men risk health amid homophobia in public hospitals

Gay people in Kenya say they would rather try risky alternative treatments than suffer humiliation at public hospitals.

Protester with mask and rainbow flag
A demonstrator is seen holding an LGBTQ flag during a protest in Nairobi on January 13, 2022 [File: John Ochieng/ Getty Images]

Nairobi, Kenya – In February 2020, Hosea Ndiretu was gang-raped by a group of men while leaving a bar in Nairobi. Within weeks, he realised he had a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and visited a government hospital to seek treatment.

But the 26-year-old business management graduate said his experience there was so horrible it made him develop a phobia of public hospitals.

“I developed anal warts [after the rape] which needed urgent treatment and went to a government health facility because of its affordability,” Ndiretu told Al Jazeera. “After explaining my predicament, the doctor asked if I was gay. I answered in the affirmative and he told me that they do not treat ‘evil people’.”

The doctor asked him to go to pro-gay rights civil society groups instead, Ndiretu said.

At the government hospital where he had sought treatment for gonorrhoea, 35-year-old Francis Onyango says the doctor attending to him called his colleagues into the room to mock him. So he sought solace in church instead.

“My pastor termed my problem as demonic and asked me to plant a ‘seed’ of $200 (Ksh 2,000) before he could pray for me. For his prayers to work, he ordered me not to take any form of medication,” said the Nairobi-based gym trainer.

While there is no comprehensive data on the exact number of gay people in Kenya, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) estimates it to be at 1.3 million – about two percent of the population. Strict government laws against homosexuality mean that the organisation cannot carry out a comprehensive census, according to Kelly Kigera, an administrator at GALCK.

Human rights researchers and activists have documented a steady rise of hostility against gay people including harassment by government forces in Kenya, which is still a conservative society.

The Kenyan constitution guarantees every citizen the right to healthcare access without discrimination but healthcare workers continue to violate this provision, especially as gay men stay silent for fear of harassment or stigma.

And that is mostly due to another constitutional provision.

The Kenyan Penal Code criminalises consensual same-sex relationships and marriage, with jail sentences ranging from 5-14 years. Police officers frequently use this to harass and extort gay people who are then forced to bribe their way out of custody.

With homophobia all around them, gay people like Ndiretu and Onyango in Kenya are shunning government hospitals and resorting to unconventional methods of treating sexually transmitted infections.

A 2019 report by researchers from the University of Capetown’s Gender Health and Justice Research Unit showed that 43 percent of LGBTQ members would hide a health concern related to their sexual orientation or gender identity from a healthcare provider for fear of discrimination while 35 percent had reported being insulted by providers.

A group of gay men during a sexual health seminar at Ishtar centre in Nairob
A group of gay men during a sexual health seminar at the Ishtar MSM centre in Nairobi, Kenya [Courtesy: Ishar Centre]

‘Looking for a cure’

While Onyango was lucky to get help from a gay rights lobby group which facilitated his treatment at a private facility, Ndiretu was not so lucky.

With no money for treatment in a private hospital, he turned to a friend who took him to a herbalist. There, he paid $5 (Ksh500) for five litres of a herbal concoction. The recommended dosage was a full cup twice a day and he was promised that it would cure his infection in a week.

“It was bitter and the smell was awful but I had to take it because I was looking for a cure,” said Ndiretu. A few hours after taking the first cup, he felt weak. “I felt dizzy, developed a splitting headache and a running stomach,” he said. “I knew something was wrong.”

The quick intervention of his neighbours saved him. They rushed him to a nearby private hospital where he spent a week being treated for partial eyesight loss – and the STI.

Worried by the number of gay men resorting to herbs to treat STIs in Nairobi, Ishtar MSM, a community-based gay rights organisation now provides free medical services for men having sex with men (MSM).

Its director Peter Njane told Al Jazeera that organisations like his are a relief to gay men who value privacy and fear discrimination in public health facilities but cannot afford treatment in private facilities.

“Due to the confidentiality of our services, we have a huge number of gay people seeking our services,” said Njane. “We attend to an average of 10 people daily. Majority are gay men who are yet to come out of the closet and only come to seek help after other treatment methods like herbal medicines have failed.”

Joshua Kimani is co-founder of  SWOP Kenya, a nonprofit running a community centre that offers counselling and support services to sex workers and gay men on safe sex and sexual ailments. The centre also connects gay men who require specialised treatment to gay-friendly clinics

He says SWOP has attended to more than 3,000 gay men since 2008.

“Many of them have confirmed using herbs as a remedy to treat STIs,” he said. “Herbs do not treat STIs and the moment someone fails to get proper treatment for infections it puts them and their partner in danger,” he said.

Kenya’s health ministry through its National AIDS and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP) says it has been partnering with organisations like Ishtar and SWOP to set up LGBTQ-friendly clinics where gay people can freely access health services.

Salim Hussein, head of primary healthcare at Kenya’s health ministry says that as much as the law is against homosexuality, the ministry does not support discrimination at its hospitals.

“The cases of homophobia are there and that is a fact,” he told Al Jazeera. “The ministry has been working to set up youth-friendly clinics where people who value privacy can access sexual related services. We have also trained our health workers to treat all patients with dignity and opened up customer care desks in all our health facilities to handle all complaints.”

NASCOP officials say most victims of discrimination in government hospitals fail to report to authorities or believe it to be counterproductive.

Ishtar and SWOP want the health ministry to train nurses and doctors who can handle LGBTQ patients and station them in special units at all public hospitals as a way of guaranteeing gay people their constitutional right to access health services.

“Even if the law does not allow same-sex relationships, the constitution gives every citizen the right to access quality healthcare and that is what we are pushing for,” said Njane.

Ndiretu says the treatment and attention he received at the private clinic restored his self-esteem after he walked out alive. “They treated me like a human being and this gave me the strength to soldier on,” he said. “I’m, however, taking precaution not to find myself in a similar situation.”

But he is still reluctant to report his predicament to the authorities because he is afraid the police might harass him for being gay.

“Reporting is not an option because the police are worse than those healthcare workers in government hospitals,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera