“As a black gay man I have, in the past, suffered with what I would refer to as an identity crisis. As a gay man of Kenyan descent, I have struggled at some stages of my life to satisfy the expectations of the black community, while still staying true to my gay self.” Issa Olwengo has lived in Ireland for fifteen years. After setting up an alcohol and drug project in a shanty town in Mombasa, he moved to Ireland upon receipt of a scholarship to study drug counselling. He has since completed a degree in addiction studies and community development, and works as a case worker in a housing agency. Here, he describes the negotiation of his multiple identities while growing up.
“I was born and bought up in Nairobi, known as the ‘City in the Sun’. It is a place of contrasts. Life in Kenya as an LGBT person is tough, forcing gay men to live double lives to protect themselves and their families' reputation. At some point, I started questioning my sexuality; although I recognised and accepted my attraction to men, I knew from a very young age that there would come a time when my parents would discover I was gay, and that this would be a significant and difficult time of my life.
“There’s an expectation that when people come out of the closet everything is going to get better. For me, it didn’t. There’s a big difference between accepting and understanding. Take the earth. We all know the earth orbits the sun, but understanding the laws of physics, gravity, time and space that make it possible is a lot more complicated. Sexuality is the same. You can accept that you are gay, but it takes a lot more effort to understand what that might mean. I got found out too early. I had only just begun to accept it myself, and had not even started to understand it. All of a sudden, I had to do both – with everyone knowing about it.
“During my teens, the only thing I knew of gay culture came from characters featured in Western television programmes and soaps. Most of them were depicted as overtly feminine, white gay men and it was impossible, or I just couldn’t relate to these personas. One time, I remember my mum saying that she liked ‘gay white men’ but felt completely sick at the idea of gay black men.
“Growing up, I had nothing in common with the gay men represented in most of the mainstream media at the time. Not only was I not white, but I didn’t posses the feminine, ’camp’ mannerisms that most of the men on television were displaying – and were highly loved for. I was always told to hide and ‘behave manly’, or more dominant. I’m not sure, this might be because of the long history of repression and mistreatment, which made us feel a need to assert strength and authority.
“I searched for a gay role model that looked and acted similar to myself but I had no luck finding one. I struggled to find relatable personas within African culture too. Hearing the words ‘shogga’ or ’booty boy' in Kenya, or hearing people use the word ‘faggot’ as an insult or putdown, made me shy away from my sexuality even further. In an attempt to fit in with my classmates, I would openly use same words and call things or people gay in a derogatory manner.
“This convoluted self-identity started to have its implications. It made it hard for me to externally live up to the ‘black man’ stereotype, while inside me I wanted to embrace my homosexuality. It hugely affected my ability to make meaningful friendships and find my niche within the community. As I got older, I began to feel isolated and found that I could not build social circles like my friends could.
“The more I rejected my true self, the more I become an outsider. Nearly all of my straight, black friends started to say and think I was ‘uncool’ – they dubbed me ‘Mr Nice’ or ‘Friendly Giant’ [nicknames for weakness], because I could talk the talk [which wasn’t genuine], but I would never walk the walk. My life was a lie, and nearly everyone become suspicious.
“When I slowly came to terms with my sexuality, I began going to gay bars and clubs [The George, WAR and The Dragon were my favourites]. I found most lads [at these places] were openly gay and proud, and a big percentage of them were white. I have always admired gay men who are confident in themselves. I have come to realise that a lot of black men, like myself, are more reserved about their sexuality, in comparison. Which led me to ask myself where this confidence comes from. Within? Family support? The media?
“I am glad that I have had a mother and a brother who were there to support me since coming out to them at the age of fifteen. Things have quickly changed in Ireland, and I have to say I have never experienced any racial or homophobic attacks. I started going out on the gay scene when I was seventeen and I have always been embraced with warmth to date. Proudly, I can say I am happy to be welcomed into and embraced by the Irish gay community.”