This pride month, massive capitalist corporations turn merchandise rainbow-coloured. But money spent on these souvenirs would better be invested in Gerald Hayo’s Rainbow Women of Kenya. Since she’s visiting Barcelona because of Fire!! film festival, I’m meeting Hayo, who established this group and stars in the documentary Now You Are a Woman, directed by Alba Muñoz, which follows daily life as a lesbian and militant human rights activist putting her life at risk. We discuss filming, political struggle and faith.
British colonial structures underpin Kenya’s problems with gender and sexuality. Their government maintains a fourteen-year prison sentence for gay people established by British colonialists. Also, Christianity continues to be used as a silencing political tool. The EU-sponsored film unsurprisingly glazes over this guilt and shame. Instead, the film records Hayo’s intimate life and avoids long shots of infrastructure and any lengthy discussion about politics. Also, it makes ‘Western’ LGBTQ rights look luxurious – does the European Union continue its exploitation of Kenya for a political goal? Equally, I worry that Hayo’s voice is constantly put through a ‘Western’ prism.
The film titled, Now You Are a Woman, directed by Alba Muñoz, repeats the words constantly heard by Hayo during and after the ‘corrective rape’ she survived – organized and watched by her brother, who she has since been forgiven. Disowned by her family at 12 years old and left with limited access to education, due to finance, the activist has overcome countless traumas and depression to get to where she is now. I am overwhelmed and humbled by her resilience and hope. Hayo puts her faith in the Bible and locates a problem in religion.
The premiere of Now You Are a Woman happened last Monday at Fire!! film festival here in Barcelona. Will there be any screenings of the film happening more locally to your country of birth?
No, it will not be screening in my country. But, I would be happy to screen it there.
Is censorship stopping you?
For the moment, I will not be able to share it. I do not know why. But if it’s possible, why not. It’s going to be screened at some point.
Like the recently un-censored Kenyan lesbian film?
Rafiki, yes.
What was it like working alongside Alba Muñoz? Did you have a similar vision? I don’t know how you met, you have different backgrounds. So, creating a piece of work like this, you have had different experiences of what it is to be LBQ women.
Well, I met Alba in Kenya. Although the connection was made by Gemma, who I met in the United Kingdom. I was there for six months for a fellowship with the Centre for Human Rights defenders at risk. When I got there, they were celebrating ten years. I was later called for an interview with Gemma, so we started talking and I told her my story. After a while, she asked me if I could get someone in the United Kingdom to take a short video of me. So we did that with Zana, the centre coordinator, and she did the recording and sent it to them.
Gemma told me it was three minutes, but it turned into seven because she said she couldn’t edit some of the things I was saying because she felt they were very important. Afterwards, I had to go back because there was a problem at the centre. So I went back home to Kenya and after some time, I got a message from Gemma telling me that they published the video with Playground on Facebook.
Yes, I’ve seen it.
Some people watched it, and the European Union sponsored them to come and do another video. So they came for two weeks and I was grounded – I couldn’t do anything, they were just shooting, coming to my place and us eating together. Then, we travelled from where I live in Mombasa to the capital. There was a campaign about the killings, the femicide. Then, to Kisumu, the small town where I was born and where my son goes to school. So we went to his school to see him. After that, we went to see my sister. We took a lot of photos on the train, on the plane…
When people are criticized for their behaviour based on gender roles, do you think it is because it of the way culture is constructed?
Yes, I think it is because of the way culture is constructed. It is about culture and how people perceive sex – a female should be this way, a male should be that way.
A survivor of rape and theorist, Virgine Despentes identifies rape as connected to being a woman. What do you think?
Well, then that would mean it is natural. I have heard of men being raped. I think you cannot say that because I was a woman I was raped – I was ‘being cured’. I was told that after this, I would be a woman.
Recently, Kenya’s government declined the decriminalization of homosexuality based on it “not [being] discriminatory”. Is the government choosing to ignore its people?
It seems so. It seems the government is trying to ignore its people. But if I think about it deeply, the government is giving its people a chance to come out to let the government know we do exist. I cannot just be negative.
So it kind of incites rebellion?
Because as you get pushed back, then you want to say, ‘we are here, don’t ignore us.’
Yes, that is what the government is trying to push, like, ‘if you really exist, then show up. If you really exist and we’ve only seen three, then that’s not enough to show the existence of these people. So if you are fifty, then maybe we can say that, well, there is something that can happen.’
What you are doing is so courageous – starting a movement when some people are still shy to attend pride, where there are many people. The laws that are banning homosexuality are actually the heritage of 19th-century British colonialism, and religion, that was enforced. Some believe a heteronormative society is ‘traditional’ when it was imposed. This way, is the government contradictory?
Yes, it is really contradictory. Not only that way, but there are so many things that the government is not noticing that are really contradictory. First, it is saying that homosexuality is ‘Western’ and we also speak English, which is Western. Why would we copy some things and not others? Then, why do we only accept it partially? If everything Western is wrong, then why should we copy the colonialists?
In the film, one of the women in Rainbow Women of Kenya discusses female chieftains as evidence for a traditionally equal society before colonialism. Do you know any more about that history of Kenya?
If I think about why we are fighting now, maybe it is because equality was something that we were denied. I think that’s when we started coming together and feminism was born. In the past, you couldn’t even find a female pastor. You could not find a woman leading a service in front of people. As much as we have grown, we are still trying to bridge more gaps. The patriarchy is still here – women earn maybe half the amount as men in the same job.
So, the film treats these modern realities you are talking about. It seems to locate community and existence as your form of resistance. Is ‘just being’ enough to rebel?
Yes. Living as a lesbian is seen as a form of practising a cult. It’s like a demonic cult. Most of the time, being lesbian is related to the Bible – there are some verses that I think people are just translating in their own theologies. This is making the situation even worse because everyone believes in the Bible, so if someone comes up with a different theology, then that’s just it, it becomes different. Does that answer your question?
Yes, the way that society is so focused on Christianity and this certain unfair interpretation of the Bible that it seems like you’re practising an occult religion – which is totally wrong. Tell me more.
There is division. From the main Catholic Church, religious leaders began to disagree to a certain extent and we founded the Protestant Church, and now, there are even more Churches. People are not trusting – Churches are competitive, there are constantly new ones, and so it becomes about standing out. To me, religion now is like politics – you want yours to be the best, and that doesn’t portray the meaning of faith. I believe that the Church itself and the Bible are so loving and welcoming, but the interpretations and the theologies that people come up with are making the Bible look a lot different.
So what is your interpretation? What is the purpose of religion if it is not political?
Religion is there to create unity, yet a religious leader can stand and say, ‘gay people must be killed’ – this is not bringing unity. The Church is bringing division. It is dividing everyone. So, if that is the case, I will stay home and pray instead of trying to affiliate to a church that will one day disown me.
So, it’s about creating your own welcoming interpretation of religious scripture rather than following someone’s divisive political interpretation.
Exactly. For me, getting to understand the Bible and what it really means. If I go to Church, I go there knowledgeable. When I find what people are saying about me, what people think, it is like when you are walking outside and a car is passing and maybe it splashes you with water – it is a mistake, it is an accident. In Church, you could go one day and find a very good religious leader and another day, because he was angry with his wife at home, he comes and says ‘homosexuals should be killed’ and so.
Because of that, I wouldn’t judge to an extent. I wouldn’t go to that church again, but I would give them another chance. There are so many good people and there are so many beautiful churches that accommodate any gay person without you feeling like you are being discriminated. So if I find a door is closing, I open another one.
How do you find your peacefulness and hope?
I find my peace and hope in the word of God. I am not religious; I am a person of faith. I believe in love and because of love, I think it surpasses everything. I also believe in chances; I like giving people chances and I think that’s why people are giving me chances saying [excitedly], ‘come and do this’, ‘come and try this’. If I wasn’t given a chance, then I could not have grown. So if I give someone else a chance, then they can be better.
Today, someone can throw a stone at me, but tomorrow he cannot do that again. Tomorrow, you cannot do exactly what you did today. So I always feel that he did that [referring maybe to her brother] because maybe there was a bad influence, maybe it was a mistake, maybe there was pressure, maybe there was something else happening to this person for that to happen. It’s also a chance to see if they really mean it. People can come and say sorry, but only when you give someone a chance.