Vulnerable populations of all kinds are suspected to have the least access to mental health services globally. Different vulnerable groups are able to find resilience in their own communities but this too comes at a cost. International organisations and institutions recognize the need for representative groups to speak for themselves, as this has always been the best advocacy strategy, stemming from years of research. In the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) movement in Kenya, the situation is no different. It is led and managed by the community members themselves. However, a great deal of the members of the community had not foreseen the need for mental health services, particularly as it complements our individual and organisational advocacy struggles.
On 22 February 2019, the LGBTI movement in Kenya was anxiously waiting for the decriminalization of sections of the penal code, that have in the past been used to discriminate against the same movement. This was a very important day in the history of LGBTI rights nationally. The community finally felt that Kenya was ready for the full realization of expression and freedoms of sexual and gender minorities, however the delivery of the ruling was postponed to 24 May 2019.
Activists on the ground, had supported one another in championing for their rights in relation to issues that the movement had faced. These included :registration of LGBTI organisations, support for comprehensive medical care, strategic litigation for human rights abuse cases, legal recognition for change of documentation, access to entertainment facilities without fear of eviction and safe employment conditions. A positive ruling would have seen the enforcement of the protections of LGBTI person’s across the country. However, the ruling was not favorable. Activists were forced to comfort each other and resiliently resolve to continue advocating for safer spaces in Kenya.
After the ruling it was evident that activists had fought hard for a positive outcome from the judges presiding over the case. It was in this moment that we finally realized the importance of accessing wellness and mental health services collectively, considering all the advocacy efforts placed by grassroots organisations and activists, international institutions and LGBTI rights allies. The concept of mental health and wellness was not particularly birthed after the ruling, not at all. Activists had found their own individual ways of dealing with stressful and depressing outcomes. Within the African setting, we are born in community and are raised by our families and community caregivers. Thus it is not uncommon to find that, we rely heavily on our social support systems to refresh our default settings. It is how we know how to cope naturally.
But how else are we coping? Resilience can also be perceived negatively. Traditionally and culturally, men are not cultured to speak or express their feelings on their mental health issues. Thus, we might find ourselves in a movement that has men who are not seeking assistance for their professional or personal problems. This equally affects women in the movement as rates of intimate partner violence have been rising particularly among bisexual couples. As more and more LGBTI persons, try to cope with the challenges, drug overdose and suicide rates are also not far behind. This is certainly true for LGBTI persons who have little to no trustworthy support networks. In addition, to our collective challenges these issues present as emerging concerns in the movement.
SiD as an ally
Hivos East Africa’s Strong in Diversity program supports the work of activists to interrogate introspectively into their own identities, understand the nuances that exist for LGBTI persons within such a heavily dictated hetero-normative environment and build resiliency strategies that give activists the strength to continue with personal and professional advocacy. This work is done in collaboration with partners and particularly trainers who help activists look back into their past experiences, look into themselves and looking into the future with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. This was developed from the need expressed by the community to have a structured curriculum that helps LGBTI people genuinely understand themselves and the communities we exist in.
As we continue to practice individual and now collective healing and care practices, the movement resolved to find new and innovative strategies to support mental health access while also recognizing that our advocacy efforts will not be a destination. It will be a much longer process that will require us to have our wellness and mental health at the center of our continuous organizing. Whether we choose to have individual therapy sessions or collective organisational staff retreats and “wellness days” it is important that we recognize the place of rest and recuperation in our lives.