John Mathenge: Where is the change?
27 July 2012
We sat down and chatted with John at the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata, India. Here’s what he had to say…
I was born in a poor poor poor family in the Central Province, a very remote place in Kenya. I am born gay – it is my identity. For 11 years now I have been living positive. I wanted people to know that gay men in Africa can also be positive. I came out openly, so I have three positives: gay man, sex worker, HIV-positive.
I’m the coordinator of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, which is a coalition of sex worker-led organizations in Kenya. We recognize diversity – male, female and transgender sex workers. I started activism long before I joined the Alliance in 2010 – I was an activist with the global Network of Sex Work Projects. I used to write articles, go to media, tell people I am a male sex worker. People always think in a country like Kenya there are only female sex workers.
Male sex workers face discrimination from the MSM community. They never realize we are gay people, but we identify as male sex workers. They ask us: “Why do you have to do sex work?” We are excluded from the MSM community. At the same time, we also face violence from clients for being gay – they have sex with you, then start shouting at you. “This man is gay! Beat him up!” Male sex workers have been raped and even had broken bottles shoved up their anus.
We tell people to report cases to our alliance for documentation and for legal support. But same-sex rape is not recognized as rape in Kenya. As a man, I cannot go to the general hospital or clinic and say I was raped. So we can only go to the sex workers clinic. If we go for treatment to the general clinic, doctors ask other health workers to come and see a gay man. This is the stigma that we face as gay male sex workers.
We also face abuse by the community. They always think this is so unAfrican, they think this is immoral.At the same time, they are the ones who want to come and have sex with you and pay you. They are the ones who identify you as a sex worker and call you names. Then when it is dark, they come and have sex with you. The police, they want a bribe, if you don’t have a bribe, they can rape you.
So many people here think that if you have anal sex, you cannot contract HIV – so many people want to have anal sex. These days competition between male and female workers is very high but we work so close; females and males get each other clients. The same client may go to a man or a woman.
In Kolkata, we are protesting against the US government and telling them to respect sex workers. Sex workers are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. HIV does not respect people. If we are fighting HIV, we need to join hands no matter whether we are straight, gay, sex workers, whatever…but with no discrimination. This is high time we tell the US government they should respect all human rights – whether you are a sex worker, straight, gay, disabled. We are all equal.
We are telling the US government to repeal the anti-prostitution pledge which was signed by the former president George Bush. Obama, when he became the president, he said “I am the president of everyone” — that should include gay people and sex workers. He said ‘Yes We Can’ for change! But there’s no change yet, so he has failed the whole world of discriminating against sex workers and not removing that prostitution pledge.”