From a secret safe house, Kenyan mothers of LGBTQ+ children tell their stories of exile
By Jackson Ambole
Inside the secret safe house protecting Kenyan LGBTQ+ young people and their mothers
On the morning of February 20th, 2023, Grace Njeri*, a 48-year-old mother of three was forced out of her matrimonial home of 18 years by her husband after their 18-year-old son publicly came out as gay. Marisa Crane’s new novel is a queer dystopia, but they’re dreaming of a queer paradise LGBTQ Nation chatted with author Marisa Crane about kink, queer utopias, and which lesbian icon they’d want to battle on the basketball court.
“My son came out as gay via an Instagram video that went viral,” Njeri told LGBTQ Nation from a safe house in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “My husband and his family rejected and disowned him and what followed was me being forced to bear the blame.”
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Njeri said she was accused of being the cause of her son’s sexuality. They were both asked to leave the family home.
Rejected and abandoned with no money, no job and nowhere to go, Njeri and her son found themselves at a safe house that has been offering shelter and support to hundreds of LGBTQ+ people.
“I lost a family and home I had built and invested in for 18 years and the pain is heavy on me,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
As the debate in Kenya rages on over LGBTQ+ people’s rights — with a section of Members of parliament already seeking to pass legislation that will outlaw and ban LGBTQ+ activities — one group is silently bearing the burden, paying the price simply for being their mothers.
Nowhere to run
Njeri is among thousands of Kenyan mothers whose children are increasingly identifying openly as LGBTQ+.
In the secret LGBTQ+ safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi, dozens of mothers and their LGBTQ+ children have found solace and safety after having been thrown out of their homes and hunted by a society that is largely conservative and homophobic.
Jesse Kibera,* the founder of the safe house, told LGBTQ Nation that since the start of March 2023 they have housed at least 50 women and 120 LGBTQ+ people who had been either thrown out of their homes, workplaces and schools or were running away from potential and pending homophobic attacks. Kibera added that most of the housed mothers had no idea their children were gay until they came out of the closet.
“The majority of the mothers we are housing are victims of forced divorces after their sons or daughters came out of the closet,” Kibera said. “For the LGBTQ persons, most of them had been attacked while others had been threatened with attacks by neighbors, friends and family.”
“Between March and April, we have received requests from a total of 300 women seeking accommodation in our safe house, but our capacity can only hold 200.”
Grace Adhiambo, 50, says she was excommunicated from her local church days after her 23-year-old daughter, who is a content creator, publicly came out as a lesbian. She says the church told her that it would be an abomination to continue having her as a member.
A former choir member, Adhiambo says things got worse after her husband threw her and her daughter out of their house.
“We had nowhere to run to and a friend to my daughter linked us up with this safe house that has now become our home,” Adhiambo said.
“My husband told me to go seek a solution to my daughter’s sexuality, which he described as sickness, and he stopped paying university fees for her.”
According to Kibera, most of the mothers at the safe house are suffering mental trauma.
“Most of them are yet to get out of the shock that came with being rejected and trolled by people close to them. We have deployed enough counselors to help the women get through the process.”
The rise of hate
38-year-old Mwanaisha Juma was forced to start a new life with her 18-year-old gay son after her husband of 20 years migrated from Kenya to Tanzania to “shield away from shame of raising a gay child.’’
Juma was left with no option but to move into a rented apartment after her husband sold their family home before moving to Tanzania.
“I had no job because for all those years, I was a housewife with no income,” Juma told LGBTQ Nation.
She added, “My husband accused me of bad parenting and child upbringing, something he said was the cause of my son being gay.”
A local women’s support group helped Juma set up a business to sustain herself and her son.
In recent months, anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech has increased both online and offline following a ruling by the Kenyan Supreme Court that said the National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) is allowed to officially register as a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Government, political, and religious leaders condemned the ruling.
Kenya’s President William Ruto led the country in criticizing the ruling by saying, “We respect the Supreme Court’s decision but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. Our values, customs and Christianity do not allow us to support same-sex marriages.”
His deputy, Rigathi Gachagua, called the Supreme Court decision “satanic and repugnant to morality and way of justice”.
Two lawmakers have already proposed a total ban of LGBTQ+ discussions and life sentences for any person found promoting or engaging in homosexuality.
Back at the safe house, some women were too traumatized to grant interviews, and those who had the courage to talk occasionally broke down.
Ann Wamukoya told LGBTQ Nation she was fired from her workplace after her employer discovered her son was gay.
“I was employed in a restaurant and my son would occasionally visit my place of work. He became friends with my boss’s son but when my boss learned about his sexuality through social media, he fired me the next day.”
Things got worse for Wamukoya when her husband turned against her and asked her to take her son back to his father or leave the house.
“My own husband disowned our son in his presence and asked me to choose between taking him to his father or leaving the house for good. Since I didn’t know of any other father to my son, I chose to leave for my own peace and that of my son.”
A vital support system
The mothers at the LGBTQ+ safe house have formed a support group to help each other through the psychological trauma and also to help their children, some of whom are also battling rejection in school.
“We felt that when we share our experiences, it becomes easier for us to get out of the complex emotional situation we are in,” Nancy Matere told LGBTQ Nation.
The safe house is working with LGBTQ+ rights groups to help some of the mothers obtain access to legal aid in pursuit of their marital rights.
“We cannot keep them here for long because of limited resources,” Kibera said. “After some time, we will release them and offer them help to establish small businesses that can sustain them.”
*Names with * have been changed for safety