Making space for the invisible among us

Ishmael Ochola | March 30, 2017

March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility.

Everyone deserves to live and work with equality and dignity. However, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in Kenya are still fighting for this human right, just like in other parts of the world. This is due to prevalent mistreatment and discrimination from transphobic members of the community.

In 2014, Church World Service initiated a Safe Space program in Kenya with the aim of influencing a shift in attitude towards LGBTI inclusion within the faith spheres through sensitization and awareness creation on LGBTI issues. This program has reached out to at least 300 faith leaders in Nairobi and its environs.

From my interaction with the LGBTI community, I’ve noted some challenges faced by transgender and gender non-conforming individuals — both locals and forced migrants – in Kenya: hate violence, abusive treatment by law enforcement, public humiliation, harsh and abusive language, mistreatment by service providers, denial of housing (especially for refugees) and denial of medical treatment.

Despite these challenges, a paradigm shift is slowly but surely underway among faith leaders who previously struggled on LGBTI inclusion. During a Training of Trainers workshop in August 2016, one faith leader participant commented, “I’ve come to learn that one’s gender identity is psychological and highly resistant to change, just like one’s sexual orientation. LGBTI persons are our brothers and sisters, we share in the challenges they face, and we have to walk with them and welcome them to our churches.”

This shift toward inclusion is in part a result of CWS-led community sensitization and awareness sessions and dialogues between clergy, civil society and LGBTI community representatives. These activities have provided faith leaders with skills and knowledge to facilitate discussions with their peers within their communities on the protection of LGBTI forced migrants.

Many participants have pledged to mobilize members of their congregation and sensitize them on LGBTI inclusion, which undoubtedly further shifts in attitudes and expand safe spaces for LGBTI forced migrants. Some LGBTI individuals have been welcomed by training participants and are attending fellowship in churches led by the participants in CWS activities. It is encouraging to see religious communities rally to protect the rights and make spaces for all persons.

With their unique position in society, faith leaders across the globe are well placed to influence a shift in attitude towards LGBTI inclusion. However, this can only be actualized when we seek knowledge and understanding of LGBTI persons, and use faith spaces to preach love rather than to set boundaries and judge others. This would be the surest way of enhancing positive visibility for the transgender identifying and gender nonconforming on this International Transgender Day of Visibility and for the future.

Ishmael Ochola is a Safe Space Program Assistant with CWS Africa.