Kenyan journalist, forcibly outed, lives their truth and launches Bold Network Africa

Out on the street, I saw that someone had spray painted “Gay Journalist” in big letters across my car. I felt myself sink down into what would become months of depression.

  • 3 years ago
  • October 13, 2021
7 min read
Chris Makena is an actor, journalist, and activist in Kenya, challenging norms and creating supports for the LGBTQ+ community Chris Makena is an actor, journalist, and activist in Kenya, challenging norms and creating supports for the LGBTQ+ community | Photo courtesy of Chris Makena
Chris Makena
Interview Subject
Chris Makena (they/them) is the founder and CEO of Bold Network Africa, an LGBTQ+ advocacy and educational organization. “Bold” stands for Brave, Odd, Loud and Different.

Chris is well known in the country as an actor and journalist. They have served as a youth reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and a TedEx speaker.

Chris uses social media to confidently and proudly present their life and fashion as an androgenous and gay person in Africa. Their following on Instagram grew quickly and currently numbers 132,000.

By choosing the path of being brave and bold, Chris helps others understand it is a not crime just to exist as your authentic self as a human being.
Background Information
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Bold Network Africa (BNA) is a human services and human rights organization based upon three pillars.

The first pillar is storytelling. BNA tells stories of the LGBTQ+ community in Africa to the world, to inspire and educate society and help end discrimination.

The second pillar is training. BNA provides training for African companies and organizations to help create welcoming and inclusive environments for the LGBTQ+ community.

The third pillar is music and art. BNA supports African creatives and hosts monthly music events for LGBTQ+ people and allies, the latest of which attracted over 1,000 people. By next year, BNA hopes to host a pride day, spreading their message and love across the African continent.

LGBTQ+ individuals in need of support can find safe spaces and safe, vetted therapists through BNA. Often times in Kenya, when someone whose sexual orientation or gender identity does not meet standards of heteronormativity or the gender binary, they are often entered immediately into conversation therapy. BNA ensures counselors are compassionate and supportive of the community.

To learn more, visit BNA’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed serious concern for the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals in Kenya.

More than half of the 527 participants reported significant levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and over 25% reported significant depressive symptoms. Many participants who reported PTSD symptoms also reported having experienced violence due to their sexual or gender minority status.

Culturally, the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya faces steep obstacles to acceptance, which organizations like Bold Network Africa are hoping to overcome. As recently as September 2021, the country’s film classification board banned the documentary “I am Samuel from airing, calling it “blasphemous and an affront to the constitution.” The movie featured one gay man’s fight to be accepted.

NAIROBI, Kenya—I stared into my wardrobe at the clothes I wanted to wear—androgenous clothes—and pain filled me up inside.

As a young person, preparing for a wedding or family gathering left me caged, always accommodating some societal norm or the assumptions of other people.

As I entered the room, they exchanged looks and angled their heads downward to whisper. Their stares left me feeling unsafe.

Seated around a table surrounded by loved ones, I was constantly surviving, constantly fighting.

“Are you ever going to come with a dress?” they would ask. “I don’t have dresses,” I replied.

Hiding in the confines of societal norms

As an androgenous person and a lesbian, this act of hiding who I was left a heaviness in my chest.

One day, instead of saying, “I don’t have dresses,” I would say, “I don’t like wearing dresses,” but that transition took time. In these rooms full of people, I felt pulled outside of myself.

Conversations ensued, ones I could easily engage in, but I stayed silent. I avoided interaction and eye contact, counting down the minutes until I could leave.

As I made my way through the evening, questions arose. “When are you going to come with your boyfriend?” and “Why are you wearing a man’s shirt?”

My mind silently shouted back at them, “How long will I have to feel this way? When will they ever understand me?” Anger arose inside and punctured my heart.

Back home, in my safe space, I cried, desperate to never feel that way again. To compensate, I made decisions to help me avoid the next event. I signed up for workshops out of town, so I didn’t have to go.

Yet, the suffering followed me. As a journalist working in a newsroom, the questions came again. Colleagues asked why I was wearing a suit, or taking male producer jobs. I projected the anger I felt inside out onto the people around me.

Outed against my will

It was a typical weekday morning. I awoke to the watchman at my apartment complex urging me to go downstairs. My car had been vandalized overnight.

I had been doing some work for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and as a young, Kenyan journalist, I drew the attention of the public.

Out on the street, I saw that someone had spray painted “Gay Journalist” in big letters across my car. I felt myself sink down into what would become months of depression.

My mind spun to the question of why. For all the good work I do—for all the absolutely beautiful stories I share as a journalist—why did humanity reduce my life to discrimination and hate simply because of my identity and sexuality?

A dark time followed. I was afraid to face the world: afraid people would recognize me now, not just as a well-known public figure, but as a gay person. I stopped visiting the mall and the supermarket during the day.

Again, my mind posed a question: how can I reverse this? A persistent thought arose and became nearly constant. There is no reverse. This has happened, and now I needed to make a decision. In that moment, I understood: I am the only who can stop me living like this.

At 24 years old, I realized that I could never change others, yet I carried their judgements with me. I was the one who went home at night full of pain, while they lived as their truest and highest self.

Living life fully free

My friend arrived at my apartment on a sunny Sunday afternoon, to pick me up for drinks.

I walked into the restaurant and for the first time, I wasn’t hiding. People recognized me. They scrolled through their phones and stared as they read the stories about me, but I didn’t care!

For the first time, I was living fully. I sat with my friends, laughing, and enjoying drinks. Strangers approached and said they loved me.

In that moment, a shift happened. I understood I had lived my life based upon other people’s words and ideas.

I decided to go out into the sun, to be myself, to live, and be happy. For all those years I held myself back with family, in meetings, in office spaces, with friends, and even in my car. Now, I was determined to live as my true self.

Standing in front of my wardrobe, I went with the suit. I put on the cologne. At events, I brought a partner. Soon, the comments shifted. An uncle said, “Hey, I like that shirt,” and others complimented my outfits.

Today, the people allowed in my life know how bold I am. There is no going backwards.

A message to those suffering

To those who can relate, the pain you carry is not your fault. Whatever age you are, you have the power to control your life.

Others will say, this is what you need to wear and how you should carry yourself. This is the job you should do, the person you should love, and how you should speak.

I contend that if their choices give you pain, break the chains, and live your truth. Pick the shirt you like. Bring the person you love home.

Then there are those of us who go through mental abuse or are thrown into conversion therapy. It is in those moments you decide, no matter what, you will choose yourself first. You have your own life to live.

Some parents will have unconditional love. Some won’t. As long as you constantly remind them of who you are, and they aren’t being hostile, give them an opportunity. These things take time, but choose yourself always.

Bold Network Africa regularly holds events for members of the LGBTQ+ community to gather, celebrate and express themselves through dance, art and other creative outlets. | Photo courtesy of Bold Network Africa’s Facebook page

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