Erica (aka Eric) is one of Nairobi’s very few transvestites, a “trannie”, “a woman born in a man’s body” – and the ultimate party animal. A nocturnal creature, she sleeps during the day and goes out at night. On any week night Erica will be club-hopping around the city, seeing most nights through to daybreak and beyond. She is something of an institution, much celebrated in Nairobi’s night-time scene and warmly greeted by ‘security’ everywhere.
Erica earns a little cash by doing women’s make-up for special events but she is otherwise supported by friends and admirers. Her dad has a little money and some property at the coast. She manages to survive in Nairobi.
While we were out together the other night, a guy in a golf shirt and safari boots watched us as we talked. “She is quite beautiful,” he said to me when she left, in acknowledgement, not attraction. I agreed.
She does her own make-up with taste and discretion. Her hair is shortish without any extensions, weaves or wigs. She doesn’t wear jewellery at all. Most often she’s out with a sling bag, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Until you see her made-up face, you’re seeing a man despite the slight swing of her hips when she walks. Her look is androgynous, seldom camp, and she rarely wears those long fake lashes with curls extending two inches out.
Under Kenyan law, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail. It’s seldom enforced: Police would have to catch someone en flagrante to prosecute. But the threat is there, so gay status isn’t openly advertised.
David Kuria, an openly gay political candidate, was forced to bow out of the senator race for Kiambu country last December due to a lack of funds and threatening SMSes. Despite this, “the narrative of Kenya being a homophobic society is taken out of context,” he told The Guardian.
“I was getting invitations by many young families for their children’s birthday parties, or first masses for newly ordained priests in Kiambu. Far too many people would show up even when we only wanted to hold small meetings – that really does not look to me like a homophobic society.”
It may be different within Kenyan families. According to a 2011 survey by Kenya’s human rights commission, 18% of LGBT Kenyans revealed their sexual orientation to their parents. Of those who did, 89% were then disowned.
Lindsay, who defines herself as transgender/transsexual, documents life as an LGBT in Kenya on her blog. “In general, if you are discovered to be transgender, the likelihood of you being stigmatised, harassed, discriminated against, beaten up, ridiculed, publicly undressed to see what you have between your legs and, worst of all, corrective raped is high,” she said in an interview with Global Voices.
In a country where an earring is still considered an overt sign of being gay, that Kenya’s new Chief Justice Willy Mutunga wears a sparkling stud is telling. He knows what some Kenyans and his critics think an earring means – and he doesn’t care. He continues to wear it, he says, to connect with his ancestors.
Holding her own
In the time we’ve spent together over the past four years, I have seen Erica face only two ‘incidents’ and the very occasional snide comment. It’s only when a guy at the next table gets drunk that I have heard strong verbal exchanges. Erica is then likely to shout the guy down with something remarkably accurate: “Does your wife know that you’re really attracted to men?” she might scream, in English or Swahili, so that everyone can hear.
Erica hit on me once, a long time ago. “Forget about it sweetie, it’ll never happen,” I told her. And that was that. But when some Nairobi folk see Erica and me together, there are questions. Erica will usually have to explain that there’s nothing between us, there never has been, and we’re just friends. The quizzical looks turn to me then, to confirm, and I usually just shrug. It’s unusual here for a straight guy to have a gay friend, let alone a transgender friend, and I can only act as natural as I feel about it. Those who ask don’t understand it but they can live with it.
Until quite recently Erica hung out in the same spots where Nairobi gangsters and hoodlums do. She was forever being robbed of her phone or having her money ‘picked’, but she’s never been hurt. She is accorded respect simply for being who she is in this harsh city, and she handles herself with aplomb.
Her lifestyle is changing slightly. She has found a new hangout spot, not downtown, but in a Nairobi suburb. It’s called The Solar Garden, presumably because it’s a place to go when the sun is out. Last weekend, I was out unusually late and joined Erica there. It’s a converted house, 1960s architecture, big and plain, with a huge slate patio and a wide lawn up front, replete with a large movie screen. A large group gathered at the bar inside while we sat outside.
There was a celebrity congregation on the patio, mostly guys in dreadlocks, T-shirts, baseball caps and sneakers, with a Kenyan rap artist at the centre. They were slouching on the balcony railing, taking photographs.
After a few hours of socialising, Erica hooked up with a guy. They got affectionate but no one took the slightest notice of their arms around each other.