“I was the first Kenyan gay man to be interviewed on TV without the benefit of anonymity... no blurring, and with my full name captioned. That was about 10 years ago.
In Kenya’s conservative and largely homophobic society, it was milestone moment- one that also marked my own public coming out,” says Denis Nzioka.
He’s one of the most vocal gay rights activists in the country, a fact that regularly attracts the society’s ire. His story, much like his personality, is full of colour.
In 2013 Nzioka announced that he would run for Kenya’s presidency, a publicity stunt that perfectly showcases his personality: boisterous, courageous, and unafraid to court controversy.
This is a man who joined Catholic seminary as a teenage boy with hopes of joining the priesthood, left the seminary at 21 to become Kenya’s face of gay rights activism, and is currently advocating for the rights of sex workers in Africa through African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA).
He has donated his sperm to three couples-via copulation, no less- resulting in three daughters, and is currently expecting his own child with a surrogate mother.
Nzioka reflects on his coming out with a curious mixture of pride, joy, and regret. Going from closeted to the public face of ‘homosexuality’, he found himself in the middle of repercussions.
“The show aired on three consecutive nights…it was quite a hot topic. It attracted a lot of attention. For the first time, Kenyan homophobes had a local face and a name to direct hate messages and death threats to.
I got hate mail, death threats, and harassment in the street. ” he says.
A few days after the show aired, he was asked to vacate his apartment. “The agent said that neighbours were complaining about ‘my activities’ that I would influence their children negatively and ridiculously, turn other men gay. I was given a two-week notice to vacate the premises.
I moved to another area, but because my face had been on TV and I continued to do other media interviews, I was quite recognisable. I was regularly harassed and even physically assaulted by the neighbourhood idlers.
Once, they even threw stones at me. I got another eviction notice within two months,” he says.
Despite the repercussions, Nzioka considers himself quite lucky. “I am blessed with a family that has been very supportive. Most of them found out that I was gay when I went public with it. When I came out, they also got harassed for being related to me.
My nieces and nephews were asked about me and discriminated against by both their peers and teachers in school. This hurt me even more than when the harassment was directed to me,” he says.
He strongly believes that sexual orientation is determined by nature, not nurture. Although he’s had sexual relationships with both men and women, he says that he’s always been more attracted to men.
“As teenage boy I realised that while other boys were obsessed with girls, I was more into boys. I liked girls well enough and even had a few girlfriends, but I preferred boys. However, I didn’t act on my feelings.
I was in a Catholic high school and having been raised in church, I found my homosexual attraction very confusing. When I was encouraged to join seminary to pursue priesthood, I was delighted,” he says.
Priesthood as an escape
Looking back, Nzioka says that he might have joined the seminary to avoid having to deal with his sexuality. “I thought that priesthood would suppress the urge.
I took a vow of celibacy, which I’m proud to say I didn’t break in the seven years I was in the seminary. Whenever I felt the temptation, I would pray or do manual work to expend the energy.
As a seminarian I taught in a girls’ high school and later worked with street children in Korogocho slums. My last posting was in a boy’s high school in Karen. I was around 19-years-old then and had started being more open about my sexual orientation,” he expounds.
He confided to his spiritual director, a senior priest, who in turn assured him that it was OK to have homosexual feelings. “He told me that the church had other gay priests and seminarians. According to him, it was OK to have the sexual urges, as long as I didn’t break my celibacy vows.
I was relieved; I didn’t have to hide my sexual orientation any more. I even reached out to other gay priests and seminarians and we had an informal meeting.”
Having a supportive community around him helped him accept his sexual orientation. He gradually became active in the gay community both in and outside the church. “I joined Gay Kenya as a member and would attend informal meetings with other gay guys in cafes.
At the time, The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), was getting active and Gay Kenya was one of its member organisations. I rose through the ranks in Gay Kenya from a member the communication officer and later programs director.”
Testing the waters
Nzioka was now confronted with the biggest dilemma in his life. He was not only gay, but was now getting more involved in gay rights activism.
He prayed about it, conferred with his spiritual director, and eventually sought and was granted permission to leave the seminary. He decided to commit himself to advocacy work fully, so much that his name quickly became almost synonymous with Gay Kenya.
He was doing interviews, press conferences, meetings, and was also involved in demonstrations for gay rights.
Away from advocacy, he had also found himself free to explore his sexuality. A neophyte to the dating world, he approached it tentatively.
“My first relationship was with a man who was a little older than me. It was a very intimate relationship, although not a sexual one. We were together for about eight months,” he says.
Two years later he got into another relationship; this time it lasted four years. “That was quite a long relationship. We lived together and were fully committed to each other.
In many ways, being in a gay relationship is not any different from heterosexual relationships. We had our share of happy moments, fights, and shared dreams. His family thought we were just ‘friends’ but my family knew that he was my boyfriend.” Nzioka says.
Currently single, Nzioka says that he’s hopeful to find ‘the one’ even though he’s wary about marriage.
“Gay marriage isn’t possible in Kenya. However, I’m not really interested in getting married. I was practically married to my ex-boyfriend, even though we didn’t have a certificate to show for it,” he says.
Although marriage might not be in the cards for him, Nzioka is a family man at heart. He’s smiles joyfully as he talks of his unborn child. “I wanted to have children but because I’m gay, the law prevents me from adopting. I searched for a surrogate mother to carry my baby.
The surrogate is a lady that I’ve known for a long time. I’m looking forward to being a dad. I’m confident that I’ll make an awesome dad. I know it will be especially challenging being a single, openly gay dad in Kenya.
I want to challenge the perception that homosexuals can’t great parents, and the laws that bar them from adopting children,” he says.
He is hoping for a son, a nice addition to the three daughters he’s sired through sperm donation to different couples. “They are all friends of mine who needed babies.
One of them was a lesbian couple who had been together for fifteen years. The others are heterosexual couples. They approached me and requested me to donate my sperm to them. Although they could go through fertility clinics for sperm donation from a stranger, I realised that there are couples who would rather have a baby with someone known to them.
For lesbian couples, getting a sperm donation from a friend is usually the only option as they’re barred by law from adopting or using other conventional options,” Nzioka says.
He goes on to explain that prior sperm donation, he would have long conversations with the couple to determine what their expectations were. “This is not the kind of conversation you have over tea.
The first couple were good friends of mine who I’d known for a long time; I’d even been in their wedding line-up. They found out that the man couldn’t sire children and approached me about being their sperm donor.
As with the other two couples, once we arrived at an agreement, I would have sex with the woman two or three times during ovulation. Because it’s a legal gray area, we don’t even have written contracts,” he says.
Is he involved in his children’s lives? “I’m involved but not as a parent. My daughters know me as an ‘uncle’. The oldest is seven, and the other two are five and four respectively.
I don’t think it’s necessary to tell them, at least not at the moment. To me, fatherhood is much more than being a sperm donor. My daughters have wonderful parents who are doing a great job raising them,”
Does the fact that he’s had sex with women mean that he’s bisexual? He laughs at the question. “I don’t like labels. For the purpose of clarity in public, I identify as gay.
But I have had sexual relations with both men and women. I consider sexuality to be fluid. I’m a well-grounded person with a healthy sense of sexuality. My sexuality is just part of who I am, I don’t understand why people make a big deal of it,” Nzioka says.
As a former seminarian, he says that the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid gay relations. “Leviticus 18:22 is the verse which is mostly used against homosexuality.
But it only says a man shall not lie with a man as he does with a woman. What if he’s never lain with a woman? I think the Bible was condemning gay men who were having sex with women. We often ignore the cultural context of these Bible verses.
We are in 21st century and have a better understanding of human sexuality than they did during Bible times. We know that homosexuality is caused by nature not nurture.” he says.
He’s still a member of the Catholic Church and attends weekly mass. “Some priests utter homophobic comments during mass, but that is not enough to drive me away from the church. I believe faith is an individual endeavour,” he says.
Being gay in Kenya is not easy. Like many other gay men, Nzioka is regularly faced with discrimination and harassment. Being a gay and sex workers activist makes him an easy target, even for the authorities.
“I have been arrested several times during demonstrations. Last year, because I have dossiers on police officers who assault homosexuals, I got death threats from people who I assume were police officers. They were using fake names on social media.
I thought they were just empty threats but while driving home one evening, I was shot at by two men. I veered off the road into a ditch and they ran off.
I was relatively unharmed but quite shaken. They later send me messages telling me that I’d been lucky to narrowly escape death,” he says.
For his safety, he now avoids using his car. “I use services like Uber where I can’t be tracked as easily and I always let my close friends know where I am. Now I focus my activism online, rather than putting myself at risk with public demonstrations. But my advocacy work is my calling,” Nzioka says.
He feels that the Kenyan society is warming up to people of different sexual orientation. “It’s better than it was in the 90s. Homosexuals and sex workers are part and parcel of the community. Just like other Kenyans, we work, we pay taxes, and we have hopes and dreams.
I want for gay people and sex workers to be able to enjoy basic human rights like everyone else. If I can effect positive change in that direction, I will have fulfilled my life’s purpose,” he says.