LGBT activist talks challenges in Kenya

In Kenya, even some health workers who provide services to men who have sex with men are homophobic, LGBT activist Rachel Mandel said.

Mandel, a former employee for the International Center for Reproductive Health, spoke to 12 professors and graduate students in Luce Hall Wednesday about the difficulties of advocating for gay rights in Kenya through public health organizations. While employees of these organizations aim to improve health standards for local communities, Mandel said often the employees do not support their patients’ sexual orientations and act in homophobic ways.

“The whole gay rights thing has a whole different place there than it does here,” she said.

Part of the problem, Mandel said, is the large chasm between what the administrators of non-profit organizations think is happening on the ground, and what is actually taking place.

Despite the organizations’ policies on equal treatment for patients, many employees at the two organizations Mandel worked for were “incredibly” homophobic, she said.

“The first time that I went I had tour of city of Mombasa by a staff member of ICRH,” she said. “At one point during the car ride he talked about homosexuality and referred to it as a psychological distortion. This same employee later became the head of the [Men who have sex with men] project.”

Mandel said she faced many challenges even within the organization itself. She said she was once pulled aside by a colleague who told her that her work on LGBT issues was useless and that she should stop.

Mandel also spoke about her most recent visit to Kenya this past summer.

“Guys latched on to me because I was on their side, I guess, and I was there to talk to them and answer questions,” she said, becoming emotional as she recalled her experiences. “They really liked me and opened up to me a lot more than I was prepared to hear.”

Mandel first became involved with health issues on the African continent through a S.I.T. study abroad program she went on during her undergradute degree at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst. From her first visit to Kenya in 2007, Mandel said she was interested in advocating for LGBT issues but she felt she could not express this openly for fear of being excluded. After she was ensconced in the program, though, she became involved with a peer education program that exposed her to the health issues facing men who have sex with men.

Through this experience, Mandel discovered the level of danger that faces members of this community — over 42 percent of the men who have sex with men that she worked with were HIV-positive, she said.

Since 2007, Mandel has returned to Kenya twice, saying that her career path began to change after her first visit.

“My focus was shifting away from hearing stories of these men and getting their voices heard,” she said. “I was looking at the social blocks in Africa. There is this deeply embedded feeling that homosexuality is un-African, which is simply not true according to research.”

Audience members interviewed said they enjoyed hearing about the Mandel’s unique experiences of sexuality and health in Africa.

Katie Gualtieri GRD ’11, a student in the African Studies Department, said that speakers like Mandel help bring attention to this obviously sensitive subject in the realm of African Studies.

“There needs to be more attention to the research people like Rachel do,” she said. “There needs to be more light shed on both her field of work as well as how human rights are conceptualized in the West.”

Mandel received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she completed an independent concentration on gender and sexuality studies.

Correction: April 22, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated that Rachel Mandel worked at KEMRI, a health clinic in Kenya, when was not actually an employee of KEMRI.

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