What you need to know:
- Mama Mutisya had suspicions when Mutisya joined college and wondered if there was more to the relationships he had with his male friends than met the eye. But she remained in denial.
- He came out to her as gay when he was 22.
- The memory of their conversation and her reaction is etched in her mind.
“Don’t preach, don’t try fixing it. Instead, thank your child for coming out and reaffirm your love for them.” This is a lesson Mama Mutisya learnt the hard way after she reacted the opposite way when her son, Mutisya, came out to her 11 years ago.
“Accepting your child does not mean you are abandoning your faith or beliefs,” she clarifies, adding that today, she is a strong ally of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer (LGBTIQ) community. She is also a key population activist and human rights defender.
Mama Mutisya noticed several “red” signs that her son might be gay growing up.
A tough time
“Mutisya loved playing with dolls, and most of his friends were girls. He loved painting and cooking and still does to date. We frequently fought about his many girlfriends because I thought he wanted to have romantic relationships with them,” she says, a smile finding its way to her face during our Zoom call.
Mama Mutisya had suspicions when Mutisya joined college and wondered if there was more to the relationships he had with his male friends than met the eye. But she remained in denial.
He came out to her as gay when he was 22.
The memory of their conversation and her reaction is etched in her mind.
“I remember my shock, panic and anxiety. He must have come to me because he needed encouragement. Instead, he got harsh and bitter words. Maybe he never expected that. I was misguided and in denial. I blamed myself as a parent. I wondered if it was because I was a single mother or because of bad parenting.”
He picked up his laptop bag and left after the altercation.
“I thought he had gone to think about it and that by the time he came back home in an hour or two, he would be a changed person. Little did I know that I would not get to see him until after almost one and a half years.”
She sought counselling, but the kind of help she sought was how to “fix” her son. She was advised on how to fast and pray against homosexuality, but not how to reconcile with him.
“I had a tough time as a parent. I'm shedding tears even as I remember that episode. I cried every day, hated and judged myself. Friends and family turned against me. I'm estranged from some of them to date. I spent many sleepless nights worrying about my son and eventually sunk into depression.”
She never stopped trying to reach out to him.
“At least he never switched off his phone, so I kept calling, texting and sending M-PESA whenever I could. He responded with ‘I'm okay’ months later, then went quiet.”
She visited Kisumu, where she suspected he had moved to, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but she never did.
“In hindsight, I should have looked for help from a professional counsellor. I faced shame, guilt, stigma and isolation. I was desperate. I need my son back in my life, but I had no idea where he was. He needed us to walk the walk together. But I let him down.”
Her persistence in sending him messages, apologising for her outburst and reassuring him of her love and support paid off, and Mutisya finally visited his mother in Nairobi.
It was an emotional reunion.
They apologised to each other, hugged and cried together. He reassured her that he was okay and even allowed his brothers to visit him.
Mama Mutisya has met his friends from the LGBTIQ community too, and they've dispelled myths or stereotypes she ever had about them.
“I have learnt that they are hardworking people who are focused, principled, successful, model citizens, generous, kind and loving.”
She adds: “I have seen him fall in love and be happy. I’ve seen him heartbroken, and that’s part of life. Every child is anxious and afraid of introducing a lover to their parents—whether gay or straight—because they desire parents’ approval and are heartbroken when they don’t get it. They hide their lovers so because they are afraid of dealing with disapproval.”
Mama Mutisya emphasises the importance of children involving parents in all aspects of their lives and parents approaching their children with wisdom and understanding.
The experience with her son has pushed her to be a better person.
“I’m very sensitive towards hatefulness and words that promote it, especially after my family faced rejection. I guard myself against being a source of hate or rejection too. After a lot of soul searching, I asked myself whether society’s opinions or my son mattered more. I can't claim to love my son and choose which parts to love and whom he should love. If I was given a choice between him and a straight son, I would still choose him.”
Jane Mbinya describes herself as an ordinary, recently retired stay-at-home single mother, grandmother and practising Catholic. She is also a trained community health volunteer living positively with HIV and has been in LGBTIQ activism for over eight years.
She is a parent of a queer child and explains that “queer” is the generally accepted name used for LGBTIQ persons instead of “certain derogatory terms coined by homophobic societies”.
When she realised her child was queer, she was devastated.
“I went through a lot of heartache, pain and endless questioning of God. I felt I had failed in their upbringing, which might have led to their ‘opting’ to be queer.”
She had nowhere to turn to for support and explains that parents like her often face condemnation.
“Such parents are still in shock but are too afraid, angry and ashamed to seek help about how to cope.”
Jane, however, took the bold step to seek answers for herself.
“I am an avid reader, so I bought materials explaining issues concerning LGBTIQ persons and also searched for information online. Church then was not an option for help at all. I found answers in bits. I also purposely reached out to my child to help me understand. They introduced me to their friends, and within a short time, I understood how much pain they were undergoing in living double lives. One in public, the other in private, to avoid condemnation, attack, rebuke and outright stigma.”
She began to offer her child's friends parental love and assurance that they could be themselves around her without fear of judgment.
Peace of mind
“My acceptance brought my child peace of mind and enabled them to ‘grow wings’ and begin a journey of self-development with this new confidence of my support.”
Jane celebrates in prayer and thanksgiving she learns of or witnesses a reunion of an LGBTIQ person with their family who have accepted them after they come out.
She describes these moments as the greatest reward in her advocacy work, for which she has received local and international recognition.
According to her, the mothers usually bear the sorrow of having the children cut off from the family as they are torn between maintaining a good reputation as mothers of straight children or the associated stigma and shame of being the parent of a queer.
Jane wants other parents to know that it is okay to be afraid, angry, question, and worry.
“But it’s more important to seek to understand, embrace, and love as you question and to continue to give any parental support. I would like parents and families of LGBTIQ persons to reach out and talk to their children whom they may have ostracised due to their queerness.”
Jane urges willing parents to present themselves to organisations that support queer people to better understand what it means to be queer in a homophobic society, including all the dangers their children face and the challenges they face in trying to leave a normal life in the face of constant rejection, abuse and discrimination.
*Names of the mothers have been changed to protect their identities.
Wairimu Githahu works with young people aged 17 to 30 in the LGBTIQ community and singles out lack of acceptance as their most significant pain point and trigger for anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.
"When I first started therapy with this community, one of my very first clients told me: 'I was made to condemn myself'. I have never heard anything more heart-breaking or more powerful from a young person who was not even 22 yet.
"When his mother found out he was gay, she made him read the Bible, especially the bits that told him that he was wrong, that he was not right and that he was not enough. His self-esteem took a nosedive."
"A lot of the people I work with have extremely low self-esteem, and that's a problem. When you have low self-esteem, you can't stand up for yourself or talk for yourself, so there comes a wider problem, so you know it starts in the family, but then it becomes a problem for all of us in the community.
"Low self-esteem is oppressive, and then again, it comes with all these other things again like anxiety and depression. It becomes a vicious cycle that begins with this one thing that someone cannot change, so the impact of that is devastating."
- Accept your child as they are.
- Please stand up for your child against homophobic statements directed at them.
- Have conversations with your child about all types of sexuality.
- Show humanity to everyone.
Wairimu Githahu is a psychiatric nurse, cognitive behavioural therapy specialist and mental health consultant. She consults for GALCK.
The cost of stigma
There is a lot of stigma and discrimination that is either systemic or propagated by heterosexual individuals who, because of their conscientious objections, do not allow LGBTIQ community members to express whatever they want to communicate when they are seeking healthcare.
For instance, if transgender women try to access healthcare, they will be demeaned and abused emotionally and physically. There is a lot of shaming and guilt-tripping around such women. The consequence of this is that we end up sending LGBTIQ communities deep into hiding with poor health-seeking behaviour.
Yet, statistically, it has been shown that the burden of diseases is with this population. I'm talking about malignancies, particularly among lesbians, like cervical cancer, breast cancer. Even the mental health burden lies with them. Incidences of HIV are also higher among LGBTIQ communities than the average population, up to five or six times.
The most powerful thing that you can do for the community is affirmation and acceptance because stigma begets violence and a host of other injustices.
Dr Stellah Bosire is a medical doctor, human rights activist and law student.
You will lose your children unless…
I was recently honoured to speak and work with young Mombasa-based LGBTIQ activists. I am also taken aback and inspired by these Gen Zs, who come to terms with the queerness from a very early stage in their lives. I will admit, I am often envious of them as they experienced young love in a Kenya style. However, I didn't give myself this, as I was too scared of myself and my feelings towards guys.
But this same generation also offers sobering and heart-breaking stories. I asked the group whether there was anyone who hadn't considered suicide because of their sexuality. No one in the room put up their hand. I admitted to them and you that I, too, did contemplate taking my own life because I was gay. The closet, whether you are young or old, is a lonely and dark place.
There is loneliness, anxiety, depression, pain, abuse, rejection, fear, confusion, and violence that come with this journey of being LGBTIQ in Kenya and societies where sexual orientation or gender identity is repressed and oppressed. But, compared to many of the stories I've heard, I got away with relatively few scars.
I'm lucky that I've found 'acceptance' and respect with some of my family, relatives, and friends. My sexuality is no secret. I still get a look, and I'm sure there is talk about me. One time, I overheard a conversation about me, and I could only get its tail, which ended with the phrase, '…na hafichi, hana haya (he's not hiding it, he's not ashamed).
Young people are finding themselves thanks to the internet, resources, and narratives in the media on being gay, bi, trans, questioning, and even intersex. They are creating families of their choice in the safe spaces that exist outside of their homes.
It is damning that those homes aren't safe for these young individuals who love or identify differently. Yet, these young folks are learning to speak for themselves and, in some cases risking everything just to be themselves. I urge parents who have LGBTIQ children to learn more about the broad spectrum that sexuality is. Who knows, in helping them find their place in this world, you could also find yours.
Kevin Mwachiro is a writer, journalist, podcaster, and activist. He produces the storytelling podcast, Nipe Story and in 2014, he published the book, Invisible- Queer Stories from Kenya. He's also a board member of Amnesty International - Kenya, GALCK and PEMA- Kenya.