by Chay Brown, Rico Jacob Chace and the Refugee Trans Initiative
In Kenya there isn’t a law to protect trans people from discrimination, in fact trans people are impacted by the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic laws that were originally imposed under colonial rule. The colonisation of Kenya began in 1888 with the formation of the Imperial British East Africa Company, which was granted a royal charter to raise taxes, impose custom duties, administer justice, make treaties and otherwise act as the government over Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar and Tanzania. After the company was bankrupted in 1894, the British government declared a protectorate over East Africa. Policies were centred around extracting wealth from the region, with the 1913 land bill giving British settlers 999-year leases on land and creating a monopoly on land ownership. British settlers also introduced unaffordable poll taxes, hut taxes and the requirement that Kenyans had to work a minimum of sixty days a year for the government.
Part of colonisation was the imposition of ‘British values’ on the inhabitants and the stylised, white supremacist version of society that feminists, anti-racism movements and LGBT+ activists are all working to dismantle today. Under colonial rule, huge swathes of Kenyan history and tradition were erased. For example, the removal of the rich history of mûgwe, the religious leaders who were assigned male at birth but presented as women. Colonialism stripped Kenya of its wealth and culture.
Many of the homphobic, biphobic and transphobic laws and attitudes that were introduced to Kenya by the British remain to this day. Transphobia is a western concept and therefore transphobia is a form of racism.
Transphobia has a profound impact on trans people living in Kenya. Street harassment, employment discrimination and housing discrimination are the norm rather than the exception. A lot of trans women and femmes take off their make-up and change into trousers whenever they leave the house. It’s just safer.
For trans refugees in Kenya, there’s even less safety or security. That’s why Vanilla formed the Refugee Trans Initiative. She and the rest of the team at the Refugee Trans Initiative have been working since 2018 to support trans refugees with access to housing, food and support. They have created a supportive community where people can be themselves. Things aren’t easy.
Transphobic neighbours seek to cause trouble for the collective, harassing them and refusing them service in their shops. The team at Refugee Trans Initiative told us that “one of our neighbours used to send in her dog to come and kill our chicken, the shop keepers closest to the house bluntly discriminated against us and at times they refused to sell things to us.”
Neighbours frequently report the Refugee Trans Initiative to the police for being “foreigners”. Whenever the police come to raid the house, they never have a warrant and are often verbally and physically abusive. This is a traumatic experience for the trans residents, many of whom have experienced multiple traumas.
Like anyone else, the people being supported by the Refugee Trans Initiative just want to be left in peace to get on with their lives. But because the initiative don’t own their own home, it’s a real struggle to provide their 11 residents the security and stability they’d like to. Due to transphobia from landlords and harassment from neighbours, they’ve had to move 3 times in the past year alone.
“Early last month we had a meeting with our landlady and one of the issues she raised was of neighbours complaining about the kind of people we have at the house – their dress code, walking style and speech expression. The landlady said that she saw one of us and was wondering why a man will want to dress like a woman. After the meeting we thought we had come into a conclusion, but a few days after she sent the agent to issue us an eviction notice. This move has left us in dilemma since most of the residents are victims of trauma brought about by transphobic attacks and isolation, some have also experienced stigma based on their HIV status.”
If they owned their own safe house, the Refugee Trans Initiative would be able offer a safer and more sustainable home for their residents. One where they are able to dress how they wish without fear of an unexpected visit from the landlord. A place from which to build a community, to heal, to create artwork. You can help to build this safe community by donating to the Refugee Trans Initiative’s housing fund and buying their artwork.