TOAn audience wearing face masks sits on the edges of a nondescript room in an unassuming building in central Nairobi. Sparsely furnished and decorated with a few signs advertising PrEP, a drug that reduces the chances of contracting HIV, there is a low buzz of lively chatter.
Then the speakers kick into action, playing Beyoncé’s Sweet Dreams, and Toyo, a 23-year-old transgender woman, struts in a figure-fitting, bright blue dress adorned with bright red painted nails and the ubiquitous face mask. , in black. He walks to the end of the room, strikes a pose, and struts out again. Toyo is followed by Miss K, or Kelvin, when she’s not drag, 24, who wears a red strappy dress, a long black wig, faux Louboutin heels, and lots of makeup.
Toyo and Miss K are in 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 venue for today’s show.
For about half an hour, the members of Dolls model a variety of outfits on their makeshift catwalk and perform two lip-synched songs.
The Dolls formed in late 2018 with four members. They are now 35 years old, an example of the growing trust 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 Kenya Gay and Lesbian Coalition, which began in 2006 with six organizations under its umbrella. There are now about 20 member groups, including some in rural areas, according to Peter Njane, Ishtar’s director.
Njane says that verbal abuse and discrimination persist, but adds: “I see hope because we are seeing gay men out there … There has been a lot of change in this country.”
Toyo, one of the founding members of Dolls, first heard about Ishtar from a gay man in his neighborhood. “I was excited when they told me about an organization like that,” he says. “I thought I was alone in this world. In my town everyone threw stones at me saying “You are so feminine, you are so this …”
As a volunteer at Ishtar, Toyo found a sense of community and began to think about how she could get the word out. She had worked as a model and had a huge following on Instagram, so she joined other volunteers and began experimenting with fashion, makeup, and acting.
Then he watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, an American reality show documenting the search for drag stars, and was immediately inspired. “I saw myself in RuPaul: I could get into character, look perfect, everyone was happy. Then I got out of character and no one could remember me. It’s as if they were two people in one body, ”he says.
“We could only do these events, wear the clothes and makeup, in Ishtar. Outside, we are very different people ”.
It wasn’t long before people started asking to join the group. Kelvin first saw the Dolls perform in 2018 when he was studying at fashion school. He joined last year after he couldn’t afford to continue his studies. As Miss K, her first performance was lip-synching to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You in front of about 70 people.
“I crossdressed at school and in public, but I wasn’t so happy,” he says. “In Kenya, when you get dressed, people say that something is wrong with you. They pray for you to take out the demons. I was not doing it with other members of the LGBTQ + community: people who know me appreciate me for who I am. “
And he adds: “The Dolls support each other, they advise you. If there is a problem, you can tell them ”.
Before the Covid hit, the Dolls were gaining momentum and had started to be invited to perform at other LGBTQ + organizations and some private events. They had hosted 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 clothing line for her fashion shows. Currently, shopping for clothes, accessories, shoes and makeup is a challenge. Sometimes members have women buy items, or shop in bulk and from charity shops to avoid unwanted attention, and then customize the outfits on the sewing machine in Ishtar.
He receives messages from people all over Kenya, from Mombasa and Kisumu, asking how they can set up their own version of the Dolls. “We are like a pilot project that everyone is watching,” says Toyo.
“We want the Dolls to be stronger and an example for others, and to have other branches. It is through these events that we create awareness; I hope we can go to the mainstream media where people stop judging us for our sexuality and start to see our talent, our ability to do other things… It’s about diversity, about teaching other people who we are. “
The Global Fund and its partners provided transportation for The Guardian in Kenya
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism