By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, June 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — LGBTQ refugees in Kenya — some dressed in sequined ball gowns and slinky black evening dresses — cast aside their troubles on Thursday to eat lunch, dance to Congolese rumba, and celebrate their second International LGBTQI Refugee Day.
After staging the first event in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp last year, several East African refugees were beaten and others had their shelters deliberately torched, forcing the United Nations to relocate some 200 people to Nairobi for safety.
"It would be wonderful to go out onto the Nairobi streets like people in Europe and celebrate who we are, especially on Pride Month. But it's not safe so we have to celebrate like this," said Obote, 40, a bisexual IT professional from Uganda.
"This community is facing tough times, but we still have come here today. I applaud my community for showing the resilience despite all the problems. If I had one wish on this special day, I would wish for acceptance."
The event was held at a safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi, capital of the east African nation, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. Yet the law is rarely enforced and Kenya is seen as more tolerant than its neighbours.
African countries have some of the most prohibitive laws against homosexuality in the world, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.
Many of the more than 750 LGBTQ refugees in Kenya — mostly from Uganda, but also from Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are forced to live in the shadows and often lack protection, safe housing and employment.
"Life at home was not easy, but neither is Kenya," said Doreen, 27, a transgender Ugandan woman.
"We thought we'd have a safer and better life here, but it's not. We still have to hide who we are. What kind of life is it when you cannot be who you are?"
LGBTQ refugees face a precarious existence in the predominantly conservative Christian nation. It can take more than five years to be granted refugee status, during which time asylum seekers cannot work.
Even after gaining refugee status, LGBTQ refugees usually find it impossible to find a job due to homophobic employers.
Refugees must live in either of the country's two northern camps, Kakuma or Dadaab, which offer basic accommodation, clean water, some food rations, and access to health care and education.
LGBTQ rights groups say the refugees need speedy resettlement in another country where they can be free and safe, but the UN says this can take years as most nations do not prioritise sexual minorities when considering asylum requests.
"There is no official day for LGBT refugees like us. We have World Refugee Day. We have Pride month. But in Kenya, we can't be free to celebrate that we are both," said Doreen.
"So today is that day. It is for all LGBT refugees across the world who cannot celebrate."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)