Jane, a fourth year student at a local university, prefers sex with other girls than with men because, according to her, “Girls pay more attention because they know and understand what another girl needs. Men don’t.”
Lesbianism has been slowly taking root among young women in Kenya’s urban centres. Fuelled by television, worldliness, and sheer curiosity, many women in their late teens and twenties turn to other females for companionship and sexual gratification.
Old problems, new solutions
Jane is what is referred to in lesbian circles as a lesbian until graduation. “I wasn’t really a lesbian, I was bi-curious” she says “I was introduced to lesbianism by my roommate when I first joined university. I had a boyfriend at the time but I was curious and decide to try it out, and I ended up liking it.”
Aged 25 now and about to graduate with a degree in psychology, Jane went back to men after dating two women. Her reason is that lesbian circles are small and there is a lot of sharing and promiscuity. “Almost everyone knows everyone else and people interchange relationships.”
She adds that she also quit because she was tired of hiding. “None of my family could find out. Society is not very forgiving. I couldn’t show affection to my girlfriend in public and I always felt as if we were doing something wrong,” she says.
Jane insists that her switching back was not because of sexual matters as she still prefers girls. “The only reason I quit is because lesbianism doesn’t have the security of marrying, having children, and settling down with the person you love like in a heterosexual relationship,” she concludes.
Not all girls see lesbianism as just a college adventure or something you could easily switch on and off. Tanya, 25, has always been a lesbian. “I have nothing against men. They just don’t attract me sexually. I want to marry a woman and have children with her. If that cannot happen, I will marry a gay man for show and we will both continue living our respective lives.”
Lipsticks, chapsticks, stems
For as long as she can remember, Tanya has liked girls. “Growing up, and as a teenager, my friends would notice boys and talk about how cute they were. All I noticed was girls. A nice hairstyle here or a nice dress there.’’
Tanya discovered her orientation while in a girl’s boarding school. “I had my first encounter with a friend in high school. My friends said that it’s a phase that would pass. Some said I needed help, so I tried a guy when I was about 18. It was a friend whom I cared for deeply. I hated it and the relationship ended.”
As Tanya says, there are many types of lesbians depending on sexual preference, dressing, behaviour, and age. “Femmes” or “lipsticks” are girly girls who dress up in pretty dresses, wear make-up, and ooze feminism. “Studs” or “chapsticks” are lesbians who, while they take care of themselves and act girly, wear men’s clothes. A girl who might switch between a femme and stud is referred to in the lesbian circles as a “stem”.
A “butch”, on the other hand, is an all masculine lesbian who dresses in baggy clothes and acts like a man while a “footchie” is an older, often married woman who still partakes of lesbian activities. A “gold star” is a lesbian who has never been with a man while the term “hasbian” refers to women who were once lesbian but now express interest in men.
After the quick titillating lesson, Tanya who has been in a relationship with her lesbian partner for two years, admits that most girls who claim to be lesbians are just in it for a bit of fun and adventure.
“Almost all my friends at university were straight but most of them were curious. They wanted to know how it felt like to kiss or make out with a girl. One of them tried it out once and ended up being in a relationship with a girl for a whole year. They even moved in together but it didn’t work out and she went back to dating guys.”
Tanya, who graduated in December last year from Nairobi University with a law degree, claims that both society and the law tend to be more forgiving of lesbians than gay men.
“The law is not very descriptive of female to female relationships as it is of male to male. There’s no clear description of lesbianism in our Constitution, so we tend to get away with it. Even people on the streets don’t really seem to mind lesbians as much as they do gays,” she says.
Anne, Tanya’s twin sister and a nutritionist by profession, is also a fully fledged lesbian. Just like Tanya, Anne also discovered her penchant for females while in a girl’s boarding high school.
Anne is quick to add that they each discovered lesbianism separately while in different schools and did not necessarily influence each other. “I was in about Form Two when I knew that I was lesbian.”
She tried dating men but failed. “While at Kenyatta University where I went, I dated a guy for a while. It was my best friend and he was convinced I could turn straight. We eventually ended it but remained friends.”
The girls are in agreement that both their parents, although aware of their daughters’ sexual orientation, are not dour about it and seldom discuss the topic.
“When we were younger and living at home my mum found Tanya reading a book called Lesbian Love Stories,” Anne says and they both break out laughing at the memory. “She took it away and never gave it back,” Tanya adds between spasms of laughter.
“At some point you have to take your friends home and most of our friends, especially the butches and studs, are not hard to figure out,” Anne says
Tanya interjects with “My graduation party last year was especially confusing for our parents. It was full of men dressed like women and women dressed like men,” and everyone breaks into laughter again. Their mother, they say, has always been inquisitive and often talks about it, but not directly. “Our dad, on the other hand, either talks around it or doesn’t talk about it at all.”
But not everyone is accommodative of lesbians. Recently, Tanya and a female friend were arrested by city council officers as they came from a party. “My friend is a butch and she was holding my hand.
The city council guys pounced on us and one of them kept saying that he knows what kind of people we were and the kind of things we do. He kept going on about us breaking the laws of nature. We were only able to get out because I pulled some strings.”
While there are a few clubs in the city that allow homosexuals, the girls agree that gays and lesbians have trouble getting into some establishments. Therefore, the gay and lesbian community usually organise their own events where they can carouse, mingle, and be themselves.
“There are several events that are organised for gays and lesbians like ‘barcode’ and ‘rainbow explosion’. There is even one coming this Valentine’s Day called ‘howlers hook-up party’,” Tanya says.
These parties are advertised mostly through social media like Facebook and Twitter. They say the locations are kept secret until only a day or two before the party. This was after one event was cancelled for security reasons when the organisers received threatening messages.
The twins agree with the contention that lesbians and gays tend to be more promiscuous than their straight counterparts. “It’s because most lesbians are not in relationships. Society does not allow it. Relationships are ideally meant to lead to marriage and since gay marriage is almost impossible in Kenya, most lesbians see no point in them. They just have their fun and move on to reluctantly marry men, as expected.”
Anne is certain that more women have tried out lesbianism than society cares to admit. “Most girls have tried out another girl at least once. When I was single and would hit on girls in a club, most of them would feel very flattered that they were approached by another girl,” she says
On why they prefer women, Anne says it is about compatibility. “Believe it or not, it is less complicated. It’s easier to open up to a girl. I get everything out of my relationship. There are things that you can’t do or talk about with a man but with a girl you can. Sometimes we have heightened drama because of all the hormones,” she laughs, “but despite this the relationships are awesome.”