David says he is looking forward to married life. In fact, the 32-year-old banker has been in a serious relationship for two years with a woman he fondly describes as his “soul mate”.
Yet three to four times a month, David has sex with men. All of them are strangers; men he picks up in bars and nightclubs on drunken evenings. “We never exchange particulars,” he says.
“Part of the thrill is the anonymity.” David believes women are for relationships and men are for sex. But ask him if he is gay and the conversation could easily degenerate into a fistfight. “Gays don’t like women,” he insists. “I’m in love with a woman!” Does his girlfriend know about his secret life? “No!” he says emphatically, “and she doesn’t need to.”
Welcome to the secret society of men who live largely heterosexual lives but also have sex with other men. Jeffrey Moses, communications manager for Ishtar MSM, a community outreach programme that works with men who have sex with men, says that men like David are torn between two worlds.
“They don’t want to deal with the stigma that comes with being openly gay or bisexual. They want to live like normal guys, get married, and have children because they feel like that’s what they owe their families and community.”
This clandestine brotherhood that has in the past been shrouded in secrecy consists of a surprising assortment of men — metrosexual men, rough necks, father figures, and even athletic types who know every single rugby stat off head.
Some of them are just curious and experimenting while others were introduced to the lifestyle by circumstances like poverty, sexual abuse, and imprisonment.
In the recent past, however, men like David have become a serious topic of discussion for the most ubiquitous of reasons: the rising rates of HIV infection among women and married couples.
Although experts in Kenya have not carried out any conclusive studies to ascertain the extent to which these men have contributed to the HIV incidence among married couples and women, the Kenya Modes of Transmission Study (KMOT) published in 2008, estimated that men who had sex with men accounted for an astounding 15 per cent of new HIV infections.
These high and still-rising figures can be accredited to a number of factors. Moses says, “Most of these guys are having sex without a condom. Period! Talking about condoms and sexual history means actually thinking about their behaviour and they don’t want to have to do that. In addition to that, we’re talking about men here, so there is no risk of anyone getting pregnant.”
National Aids Control Council project officer Lilian Langat adds that men who have sex with men are at increasingly high risk due to the number of partners that they have as well as the manner in which they engage in sexual acts.
“Studies and self-confessions have shown that MSMs have multiple sexual partners and some are married and engaged in heterosexual relations. Anal sex also puts them at high risk of HIV transmission due to possible tearing.”
Regular men with secret lives
The issue is of such concern that public health officials across the globe have resorted to referring to this distinctive group of men as MSM or men who have sex with men. This is because terms associated with sexual identity like gay and bi-sexual often put men off, thus making them non-receptive to messages on HIV and Aids that target these groups.
Edwin, a 29-year-old cab driver, likes his lover’s masculinity. They begin their evenings in bars watching football, drinking, and making crude comments about the anatomies of the waitresses serving them.
This seemingly alpha male behaviour is usually just a prelude, a form of foreplay. What is surprising is that Edwin is married and has a three-year-old son. “That b**** is always nagging me,” he says of his wife. “I never enjoy being with her. Even the sex is just horrible.” Yet to the outside world, Edwin, is a regular, football-loving, testosterone-oozing heterosexual man with a beautiful wife and a young son.
Moses says, “You would be surprised how many men who don’t look stereotypically gay are having sex with other men. In fact, I’ve had some of the most dangerous-looking men, men who look like they can rob or hurt you, confess that they’re sleeping with other men. I’ve even seen engaged men, married men, and clergymen who are engaging in this behaviour.”
Wait a minute, you may be thinking, how can men who have sex with other men consider themselves heterosexual? Although the answer cannot be summed up in one word, psychologist and lecturer Samson Munywoki says that MSMs are men who are simply suffering due to the effects of stigma and denial. “These are men who don’t accept themselves. They’re men who are pretending to be what they’re not. So the sickness here lies in their denial. That’s the real problem.”
He believes that counselling could assist in the fight against HIV and Aids with regard to MSMs. “In a more open society, these men would be gay or bisexual and they should be helped to accept that. I think this would greatly assist in the fight against HIV and Aids.”
This denial has made it increasingly difficult to get Aids messages across to this group. Moses says, “It’s not only these men, who are in denial. Kenyan society is in deeper denial. Aids prevention messages like “Mpango wa Kando” are only addressing half the problem. These messages completely exclude gays, bisexuals, and other groups.”
Part of the problem, perhaps, lies in the legality of the matter as sex between members of the same gender is a serious and punishable crime in Kenya. Lilian Langat, however, says that organisations like the National Aids Control Council have found ways around this.
“Since, in Kenya, sex between members of the same sex is outlawed, MSMs are engaged from the public health perspective of HIV infection, prevention, and promotion of health. The Constitution provides the right of health access to all Kenyans, irrespective of sexual orientation.”
According to Langat, there are currently several programmes around the country that target MSMs. These programmes, provided by civil society and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, provide “peer education, STI screening and treatment, HIV counselling and testing, and provision of condoms and lubricants.”
The question that begs is: How can women, who are often the casualties in such cases, protect themselves from these men? Are there any warning signs that can help identify such men? According to Moses, the answer is a resounding no.
“How?” he asks, smiling. “These guys are the smoothest of smooth operators. You can never know unless they tell you. And in most cases, because of the stigma and the social repercussions of such a confession, they won’t. So all women can do is educate themselves about protection. The real solution to this problem is to eliminate the homophobia and stigma that surrounds MSMs, nothing else.”
So, how would you feel as a woman if you found out that the man you are in a relationship with is a man on the down low? Joanne Luvuno, a civil servant and newlywed mother of one says, “I would kill my husband. I have nothing against homosexuals, but I have something against liars and people who deceive those they claim to love. The betrayal and the lies is what would upset me the most.”
Wanjeri Abdalla, a young executive who lives with her partner, says, “If I found out that my man was on the down low, I would take a pair of scissors and cut off his penis! If he is confused about how to use it, then it should be confiscated until he decides whether he’s gay or straight.”
Since this brotherhood is still shrouded in mystery, any woman, regardless of age or station, could be sleeping with a man who is sleeping with other men. In that case, all women are potentially at risk of being among the 15 per cent of new HIV infections they account for.