“I saw myself in RuPaul”: How drag racing inspired LGBTQ + Kenyans to find freedom | Global development
AA public wearing face masks sit on the edges of a nondescript room in an unassuming building in central Nairobi. Sparsely furnished and adorned with a few posters advertising PrEP, a drug that reduces the risk of contracting HIV, there is a low hum of excited chatter.
Then the speakers kick in, playing Beyoncé’s Sweet Dreams, and strutting 23-year-old transgender Toyo, in a tight-fitting shimmering blue dress accessorized with bright red painted studs and the ubiquitous face mask, in black. She walks to the back of the room, strikes a pose and comes out. Toyo is followed by Miss K – or Kelvin, when not hanging out – 24, who wears a red strappy dress, a long black wig, fake Louboutin heels and lots of makeup.
Toyo and Miss K are in the Dolls – a group of gay, transgender, and non-binary people who volunteer at Ishtar, a drop-in center for men who have sex with men and the location of today’s show.
For about half an hour, the members of The Dolls model an array of outfits on their makeshift catwalk and perform two lip-synced songs.
The Dolls were formed at the end of 2018 with four members. They are now 35, an example of the growing confidence of the LGBTQ + community in Kenya, where homosexuality is criminalized and people face stigma, discrimination and violence.
Ishtar, which receives funding from the Global Fund, belongs to the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya which started in 2006 with six organizations under its umbrella. Today there are around 20 member groups, some in rural areas, according to Peter Njane, director of Ishtar.
Njane says verbal abuse and discrimination persist, but adds, “I see hope because we see gay men on the streets… A lot of changes have taken place in this country.
Toyo, one of the founding members of The Dolls, first heard of Ishtar from a homosexual in his neighborhood. “I was thrilled when I was told about an organization like this,” she says. “I thought I was alone in the world. In my village, everyone threw stones at me saying “You are so feminine, you are so that …”
While volunteering at Ishtar, Toyo found a sense of community and began to think about how she could spread the word. She had been modeling and had a lot of Instagram followers, so she teamed up with other volunteers and started experimenting with fashion, makeup, and performance.
Then she saw RuPaul’s Drag Race – an American reality TV show that documents a search for drag stars – and was immediately inspired. “I saw myself in RuPaul – I could step into character, look perfect, everyone was happy. Then I walked out of character and no one could remember me. It’s like you’re two people in one body, ”she says.
“We could only do these events, wear clothes and make-up in Ishtar. Outside, we are very different people.
Soon after, people started asking to join the group. Kelvin first saw the Dolls perform in 2018 while studying in fashion school. He joined last year after he couldn’t afford to continue his education. As Miss K, her first performance was lip sync with Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You in front of around 70 people.
“I cross-dressed in school and in public, but I wasn’t so happy,” he says. “In Kenya, when you dress up, people say something is wrong with you. They are praying that you will cast the demons out of you. I wasn’t doing it with other members of the LGBTQ + community – people who know me, like me for who I am.
He adds: “The Dolls support each other, supervise you. If there is a problem, you can tell them.
Before Covid hit, the Dolls were gaining momentum and had started being invited to perform in other LGBTQ + organizations and at some private events. They had presented an annual Miss Ishtar pageant.
Despite the problems caused by the pandemic, Toyo has big plans for the Dolls’ future. She wants to create a line of clothes for their fashion shows. Currently shopping for outfits, accessories, shoes and makeup is a challenge. Sometimes members ask women to buy items, or buy wholesale and from charity shops to avoid unwanted attention, and then customize the outfits on Ishtar’s sewing machine.
She receives messages from people all over Kenya, Mombasa and Kisumu, asking them how they can create their own version of the Dolls. “We’re like a pilot project that everyone is watching,” Toyo explains.
“We want to make the Dolls stronger and an example for others, and have other branches. It is through these events that we create awareness; Hopefully we can get into the mainstream media where people stop judging us on our sexuality and start to see our talent, our ability to do other things… It’s about diversity, about teaching others who we are.
The Global Fund and their partners provided transport for the Guardian in Kenya
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