“A chance to express and define oneself”


At the end of November, RFSL visited Kenya’s capital Nairobi. The purpose was to meet its partner organisation EATHAN, which works with strengthening trans and intersex organising in Eastern Africa. The visit coincided with Kenyan trans activists arranging the country's first ballroom event for trans and intersex people during Transgender Day of Remembrance.

The modern ballroom culture was started in New York in the seventies by black and Latino LGBTQI people. Since then it has spread through music and media. The activists in Kenya were inspired by Pose, a TV series about the ballroom culture, when they threw a ball during Transgender Day of Remembrance. One of the cornerstones in ballroom culture is creating a safe place in which you can express your gender. 

– It’s important to get the chance to express and define oneself, explains Tanaka Muren

He is a member of the Kenyan trans organisation Jinsiangu that organised the ball. 

– To perform at the ball meant that I had to be my most authentic self. I had to own my masculinity. It’s been a long journey to get to where I am today; to realise that masculinity is up to me to define, says Tanaka.

The strife for LGBTQI people’s rights has progressed somewhat further in Kenya compared to other East African countries. For example, trans people now have the right to legally change their first name. Unlike in the neighbouring countries Tanzania and Uganda, there’s a greater acceptance of LGBTQI people in society. However, most formal rights are lacking and sexual acts between people of the same gender are still criminalised. The Kenyan trans movement is fighting for the right to change legal gender. The fact that you cannot currently change your legal gender creates problems in the contact with authorities and healthcare. 

375 trans people in the world were murdered between October 1st 2020 and September 1st 2021. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) is held on November 20th every year in memory of all those trans people who have been murdered because of transphobia. Trans women, black people, sex workers and people who have experienced migration are overrepresented in the statistics, especially those who experienced several forms of oppression at the same time. 

Violence against trans people is a problem in Kenya also. Letoya Johnstone is a famous model and trans activist. She says that a trans woman named Erica Chandra was recently found murdered in a ditch. Letoya explains that she herself has been sexually harassed by plain-clothed police officers. For LGBTQI people the world over it’s a challenge that those authorities, such as the police, whose job it is to protect them, often are the perpetrators. 

Letoya Johnstone, modell och transaksivist.

TDoR is an important day for Letoya Johnstone. It’s a day when trans people can commemorate those who are no longer with us, celebrate themselves but also to claim their rights.

– This means visibility for us. I am beautiful. I am needed. I am a citizen and have the right to protection. The same thing is true for my trans sisters and brothers, says Letoya. 

The trans movement in Kenya is currently blossoming. More and more trans people get organised. However, financing is still a huge obstacle. Small and newly started organisations that work with trans and intersex issues often have trouble getting financial support. RFSL has therefore started a multiannual partnership with EATHAN – East Africa Trans Health & Advocacy Network, which is a regional network for trans and intersex organisations in Eastern Africa. Financed by ForumCiv and RFSL’s own fundraised funds, EATHAN runs a capacity strengthening project through which the organisation, for example, has been able to get its own office. 

Even though TDoR is a day with a serious message, it’s clear that the activists here are inspired. Sonia Audi, program coordinator at Jinsiangu, stresses how important it is to remember the people who were there before you.

– There’s strength in community. There’s strength in history. That you were here before me and that I now take over. We did this together and I continue the fight. That’s why this day is important. 

Read more about RFSL’s partnership with EATHAN.