Nairobi, Kenya – In June 2018, Danee Naturibale (not his real name) moved to Kenya after escaping from a Ugandan prison where he had spent two months. The 37-year-old, who openly identifies as gay, was among 20 people arrested at a party in Mbale in the country’s east, he told Al Jazeera.
“We were hurriedly charged [in court] and sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. After two months behind bars, we hatched a plot to sneak out of prison,” he said.
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Naturibale, who was running a flourishing beauty shop before his arrest, fled his homeland with nothing but the clothes he had on and 50,000 Ugandan shillings ($13) that a sympathetic prison warden gave him. He paid 37,700 Ugandan shillings ($10) to slip past the border inside a truck ferrying bananas.
Fellow members of the Ugandan queer community waiting for him on the other side helped him register as a refugee. It is a recurring story; many in the Ugandan LGBTQ+ community have found a safe space in Kenya after fleeing their deeply conservative country, where the government and society remain openly hostile to sexual minorities.
Back home, their friends are in prison or in hiding from family and the government, they said.
“In Uganda, LGBTQ persons live under the mercy of security forces and homophobic neighbours. There is rampant harassment and discrimination against gay people in government institutions, shopping malls, hospitals and public transport,” Naturibale told Al Jazeera from Nairobi.
Kenya is also highly homophobic; in January, prominent LGBTQ rights activist Edwin Chiloba was found dead in a metal box in the country’s west. But the LGBTQ+ community is “much safer and freer”, Naturibale said.
That was until February 24.
‘Morality and way of justice’
Trouble began that day after the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled that the National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) be allowed to officially register as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), saying it was unconstitutional to deny approval on the basis of applicants’ sexual orientation.
“Just like everyone else, [LGBTQ+ people] have a right to freedom of association which includes the right to form an association of any kind,” it said.
Rather than make life easier for the LGBTQ+ community, the ruling instead galvanised many Kenyans against them and exposed them to danger, they said.
The authorities criticised the decision and most citizens have derided the ruling.
“We respect the Supreme Court’s decision but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. Our values, customs and Christianity do not allow us to support same-sex marriages,” President William Ruto said at an event on International Women’s Day, after a long silence.
His deputy Rigathi Gachagua said the court decision was “Satanic and repugnant to morality and way of justice”.
The country’s attorney general said the government would be seeking a review of the apex court’s ruling as allowed under Kenyan law.
One lawmaker tabled a parliamentary motion seeking a total ban on even discussing same-sex marriage. Another has prepared a bill seeking a life sentence for any person found promoting or engaging in homosexuality.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, incidents of malicious online and offline behaviour and public demonstrations against sexual minorities have increased, according to Houghton Irungu, Amnesty International’s executive director in Kenya.
“It is worrying when we see personal details of persons perceived to be identifying as LGBTQ+ are being shared publicly without their consent,” he said.
Consequently, many who openly identify as gay are afraid to leave their houses, NGLHRC co-founder and former executive director Eric Gitari, told Al Jazeera.
“Right now, many are too scared to even go to the shop across the road because they do not know what will befall them,” he said.
Days after Gachagua’s remarks, 26-year-old Jeen Kyaviluga (not their real name) and a small group of Kenyan friends were attacked at about 10pm as they left a club in Rongai, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
“They attacked me claiming that I was dressed like a lady yet I’m a man,” Kyaviluga, a second-year computer engineering student in Nairobi, said. “They smashed my phone and told me to relocate from the town.”
In parts of Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya, activists have said landlords are now evicting queer tenants – some forcefully – and confrontations with employers are rising.
“There are increasing requests for evacuation, relocation and psychotherapy with organisations responding to no less than 117 recent homophobic attacks in the last month are seeing their case-load multiplying,” Irungu said.
A few people like Kyaviluga have been lucky.
“My landlord knew I was gay and when the hate campaigns got heated, he was kind enough and called us for a meeting and asked us to seek a safer space. He even assisted us in looking and moving to a safer space where we are currently housed.”
He and another 10 Ugandans who have also fled their homes in Nairobi now live in the safe house run by a local pro-LGBTQ+ lobby group.
One activist told Al Jazeera anonymously for fear of interference from security agencies, that their organisation was working with other rights groups and foreign missions in Nairobi to help Ugandan and Kenyan members of the LGBTQ+ community at extreme risk, gain asylum abroad.
Amid the debate, Ugandan LGBTQ refugees in Kenya have said they feel much safer in Kenya and are unlikely to return home.
“Many of us have been able to go back to school, start businesses, get employed and live freely [here],” said Kyaviluga.
Despite the homophobic crusade led by Kenyan political and religious leaders putting their lives at risk, the country had given people like him the “hope and life” that had been ripped away from them back in Uganda, he said.
In Uganda, things are becoming even worse.
In March 2023, lawmakers there approved a stringent bill imposing a death sentence to some LGBTQ-related crimes and up to 20 years in prison for people identifying as LGBTQ+.
There is now domestic pressure on President Yoweri Museveni to assent to the bill, as well as pressure from the international community for him not to do so.
The new legislation would “undermine fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, urging Uganda to reconsider implementation.
Whatever happens, Kyaviluga is digging his roots into his new home.
“Going back to Uganda will be like committing suicide,” he said.