OPINION: Trans and non-binary refugees and the struggle for survival in Nairobi

by Brian Oosthuizen | Oxford University
Tuesday, 6 August 2019 07:00 GMT

'Daisy' poses for a photo at the Refugee Trans Initiative (RTI) safe house in Nairobi. Credit: Brian Oosthuizen

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We need to pay more attention to the unique challenges facing trans and non-binary refugees

Brian Oosthuizen is a master’s student at the University of Oxford, researching LGBT+ forced migration

There are more than 700 refugees in Nairobi who identify as LGBT+, the majority of whom have fled persecution in Uganda, according to the Refugee Coalition of East Africa (RefCEA), an umbrella organisation for gay, bisexual and transgender refugee groups in the region.

While some attention has been paid to this community, particularly around Pride celebrations, protests, and forced removals, little has been directed toward the everyday struggles they face - not least the unique and particularly severe challenges facing transgender and non-binary individuals. 

The LGBT+ refugee community in Nairobi lives, to a large degree, in a number of safe houses, each represented by a community-based organisation. Over the past five weeks, I have visited a number of these safe houses and have had the privilege of interviewing and getting to know this remarkably resilient community. 

I was particularly struck by a recent trip I made to one trans-led safe house: Refugee Trans Initiative (RTI). The trans and non-binary refugees living there endure unrelenting psychological and material suffering.

The first issue: security. One refugee, Isabelle (names have been changed to protect peoples’ identities) said: “When… you come out as a transgender, it comes with a lot... when it comes to security, I think we are the most traumatised people.”

All the trans refugees I’d spoken to had experienced many instances of verbal and physical abuse in public, both in their home country (usually Uganda) and in Kenya, from both police and members of the public.

When asked about whether they venture out to the one well-known gay bar in town, Isabelle replied: “Since I came out as a transgender I haven't been to those bars... you always know that, if we go there and we get into [security issues]… I will be the first person to be attacked.”

All of those in the interview, plus other trans and non-binary refugees I have spoken to, attribute these acute risks to visibility.

One trans woman, Daisy, summed it up poignantly: “You can't hide as a trans person... we can't keep a low profile.”

Given this level of visibility, trans and non-binary people are unable to access formal education and employment. In fact, RTI members recently had to close down a beauty parlour they set up in the local market due to the daily threats they were receiving from the public.

These material challenges, Isabelle emphasised, only worsen mental health problems (something, she added, that often gets overlooked in the media). 

“You don't have money, you don't have a job, you're not allowed to work. I have two degrees… but I don't have a formal job, and it keeps haunting you, knowing that. Mental health [is]... a big, big, big issue. [For] most of the transgenders, you can't spend… a whole week without breaking down.”

This is all on top of the challenges they face accessing gender-affirming medication - particularly hormones - an issue raised by all trans and non-binary refugees I’ve spoken to.

There is, however, always hope.

The trans and non-binary refugees have constructed an extraordinary safe space for themselves at RTI. Here, behind the vaulted walls, they are free to dress and adorn themselves as they wish, with the highest of heels and the wildest of wigs.

There is always room for joy. Through all the violence, mental distress, and material insecurity - they come together, they support one another. They have built, as they describe, their own family here.

Other members of Nairobi’s LGBT+ refugee community face many challenges. Focusing on trans and non-binary issues is not, I hope, to undermine others’ experiences and issues, but rather to shed light on an underrepresented community of individuals who feel as if their voices aren’t heard, let alone translated into action.

“There are issues that the others don't understand,” as one non-binary refugee, Sam, said.

It is time we focus on them for a change.