50.50: Feature

LGBTIQ students kicked out of school in East Africa are fighting back

Homophobia, religion and the legacy of colonialism are hurting gay and lesbian school students in Kenya and Uganda – but they won’t be defeated

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
11 February 2022, 7.00am
Protest in Nairobi, Kenya in support of LGBTIQ school students, 13 January 2022
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John Ochieng / ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

A young basketball player was branded a lesbian and kicked out of her Christian school.

A male student accused of “gayism” was beaten, interrogated and then expelled from his Muslim school.

These are among the shocking stories told to openDemocracy by victims of the homophobic, religious and colonial laws and attitudes that have seen generations of LGBTIQ children driven out of schools in East Africa.

But queer people in Kenya and Uganda are fighting back.

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Last month, members of Kenya’s LGBTIQ community took to the streets of Nairobi in protest at the cabinet secretary for education, George Magoha, saying that gay and lesbian students should be banned from boarding schools.

Not surprisingly, Magoha’s remarks (made in December) incited homophobic attacks online and in schools. “Two students came to the march and they’ve been driven away from school for being lesbian […they’re only going back for] their final O-level exams in March,” said Marylize Biubwa from the Queer Republic, the international collective behind the protest.

Such outright discrimination against presumed or self-identifying LGBTIQ students in schools is not unique to Kenya. Its neighbour Uganda also retains British colonial-era attitudes to homosexuality.

Colonial-era laws

Last year, Uganda’s parliament passed a “sexual offences” law entrenching the prohibition of same-sex relationships, while in 2019 Kenya’s high court upheld the country’s existing anti-homosexuality legislation. An openDemocracy investigation also found that Western conservative groups are actively funding and fanning anti-LGBTIQ sentiment on the continent.

“Because society has set up the narrative that people are queer because [they] have been recruited […] a lot of [LGBTIQ] organisations are scared to look into matters that are affecting queer children,” Imani Kimiri, a lawyer with Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), told openDemocracy.

Violent homophobic attacks, expulsions and discrimination against LGBTIQ school students in Kenya and Uganda are “commonplace”, according to victims and activists who spoke to openDemocracy.

Zawadi Mashego, a member of the Queer Republic, said that because many countries in East and Southern Africa are former colonies of Britain, Christianity is “a focal point for driving the whole system”, including in schools.

School culture in Uganda and Kenya remains largely modelled on its founding by white Christian missionaries. In Uganda, three-quarters of schools “are religiously founded”, while in Kenya the Catholic church alone owns more than 32% of all secondary schools.

Like the ‘sodomy’ laws based on Victorian Christian morality, most schools in both countries continue to enforce heteronomative standards of sexuality and gender. Students who are perceived as falling outside these categories can be made to pay a high price.

Bullying, suspensions and expulsions

Jill, a 25-year-old pansexual woman in Kenya, has “gone through life [in] a reservoir of guilt” after being constantly shamed in school for her ‘stud’ appearance.

She and other girls were accused of having group sex after sneaking into the school’s computer lab to use the internet. Jill is a basketball player, and a disciplinary committee labelled her a lesbian because she was wearing a sports jersey. She was suspended from school soon after.

The effects of such experiences are long-lasting. “I have to fight all the trauma that was attached to what they thought I was, before I could get to accepting who I am,” she said.

For Bagbo, a trans nonbinary person in Kenya, the homophobic culture at their school made them associate being gay with being “deviant” and a “pervert”. They said they were “shown videos of little boys allegedly raped by gay men” to warn them off homosexuality. Bagbo’s denial of their sexuality and gender identity had serious psychological effects, and they attempted suicide a number of times.

No one suspected Jessie (not their real name), now an out nonbinary person, of being queer when they were at school. Jessie went to one of the top Christian girls’ schools in Uganda, where they witnessed two classmates being relentlessly bullied amid malicious rumors that they had been caught having sex at school. The two students were later expelled.

“Seeing the way people spoke about queer students, both among the student body and the school administration, obviously felt very alienating and very threatening,” said Jessie. Secretly queer at the time, they felt “like a spy in enemy territory”.

But punishing children for not adhering to the binary of sex and gender occurs in other educational establishments, not just Christian schools.

Mahmood (not his real name), a gay man in his early twenties, attended a prominent Muslim school in Uganda. He said the school’s constitution listed the term “gayism” as an offence punishable by expulsion. There was no equivalent offence for heterosexual relationships, despite the school having both male and female pupils.

Uganda is infamous for being anti-gay, and politicians incite homophobia to increase their populist appeal. ‘I was constantly harassed, called a woman, a cissy,” Mahmood told openDemocracy. “They pick on you to fight you, beat you up.”

In 2014, around the time that Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ bill was making headlines around the world, homophobic bullying intensified at Mahmood’s school. Hateful sermons at his mosque also left him feeling exposed. Mahmood and his friends were beaten and interrogated by the student leaders responsible for enforcing “religious discipline”, with little to no oversight from the school administration.

He said that some of the student leaders had previously sexually assaulted him and his friends. “Sexual assault of supposed queer kids is used as a form of bullying by the supposed straight kids,” he said. “Because of homophobia, there aren’t enough honest conversations on the sexual violence against young boys by older males in schools.”

Mahmood was denied a place in the school for his A-levels.

Like Mahmood, most students accused or suspected of engaging in same-sex relationships are punished by being suspended or expelled from school. While schools often ban any form of sexual relationship, the stigma attached to being expelled because of suspected homosexuality is an additional barrier for resuming education elsewhere, especially at a school of a similar standard.

They won't be able to compete with people who have all this education and who have had this privilege. But education should not be a privilege,” said Kimiri from the NGLHRC.

The Queer Republic’s Biubwa said one reason they took part in last month’s protest is because LGBTIQ children are caught in a system that seeks to “render [them] unworthy of experiencing equality and equity in terms of how they access education”.

Vivian, now a young woman, went to a Catholic school in Kenya, where a rumour about her kissing another girl reached the school principal. The two girls were publicly humiliated at a school assembly before being interrogated. “They would lie to us [and say] the other person has confessed their love for you, and they have confessed [to] you being lesbian,” said Vivian. She was eventually suspended from school.

Being suspended or expelled has added complications. It is often when pupils are outed to their family – and to a violently homophobic society. When Mahmood was sent home from school, his father beat him up and his aunt wanted him out of the house, saying he could not be trusted around children.

‘The world is much bigger than my school now’

“African queers have been through a lot of pain,” said Mashego. “We know that traditions can be broken and rebuilt. So these are structures that we need to be rid of. Change them, and just think of a different structure where everyone has the ability to live freely.”

Mashego took part in a digital campaign against the cabinet secretary’s remarks, helping to rally people to join the protest march in Nairobi.

Biubwa told openDemocracy that the Queer Republic would maintain pressure on the education ministry to ensure the safety of LGBTIQ children in Kenyan schools.

When Mahmood saw photographs of the Kenya protest, he felt “deeply inspired”, and hoped that something similar would happen in Uganda. He is a devout Muslim: “I know what my religion teaches. I’m sure God created me this way.” His relationship with his father is “much better” these days. He also has many queer friends, and a couple of gay-friendly bars where they can hang out. “The world is much bigger than my school now,” he said.

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