Anthony Adero granted me the privilege and the honor of discussing with him his redemptive experience following the trauma of being gang raped. We delved into his “afterlife,” his journey through fear, denial and social resistance, and the overwhelming difficulty of finding the expressive language to capture an awful occurrence that grew into a blessing as he reclaimed his body before the world.
Nick Mwaluko: Following the rape, you were in recovery, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. During that entire stretch of time, you were not sexually active.
Anthony Adero: Absolutely not.
Mwaluko: How did you find out that you had HIV?
Adero: I felt my body was not my body.
Mwaluko: Yours was a nonconforming body, wouldn’t you say?
Adero: Yes and no. I left Nairobi’s city center for my home village because I did not want to come near or close to another stranger. I needed solitude, peace, space, familiarity, which I falsely associated with safety. I was deeply depressed, very sickly. I could not get out of bed. My youngest aunt suggested, with the utmost compassion, that I get medical attention. My first test was negative, but I knew my body was not my body. My second test was positive.
Mwaluko: An African man who is raped is not an African man by traditional African standards. How did you find language to express your experience and the courage to voice it?
Adero: I had no language. Nothing to call forth, not in a village with strict gender stereotypes. Blame is available: “You’re stupid. You’re naÃ¯ve. Nobody will accept you. You deserve nothing.” My first tongue was shame. It came from deep. It was all I could summon from within.
Mwaluko: In rural Kenya in 2007, I doubt networking through social media — Twitter, Facebook, Internet access — was there to help you stretch beyond your village to talk about your sexuality, to say, “I am a gay African man who lost his virginity through gang rape,” to gain access to an organization for support, for a language.
Adero: I spoke to my first medical counselor. I used that experience to break the ice. I was disoriented. I had no idea who Anthony Adero was, but I had that tiny spark that ignites a forest, a small, imperceptible hint of who I could be, that something in you that is beyond who you are then and now.
Mwaluko: Looking beyond yourself for yourself, knowing identity is not shaped by circumstance. This is so similar to a trans experience.
Adero: There is no Disneyland in HIV. You have to say it as it is. That is how you arrive at a language. I became fluent through practice, because every day is an AIDS day. Silence, denial, blame, hypocrisy kept me in bondage, blocked access to healing. My “new” language was developed from a vocabulary based on truth, my personal truth told by my voice. This brought freedom. It opened spaces I created because I had to create that space for myself. If no African man can be raped because it’s not masculine, I found a language to express what results from undoing that belief system: exquisite pain, wonder, defeat, celebration, etc. Then other people came forward. We are a tribe. When I first told my story to my community, they laughed at me. It hurt. I did not want to tell it. This made me wonder if anyone wants to know me, if anyone could love me. Men in my village did not understand my sexuality; women did not understand my sexuality; no one believed me when I said I was raped. No one understood HIV. I did not fit. I had no space from within: I was not man enough; I was not woman enough; I was not sick enough; I was not healthy enough; I was not masculine enough; I was not feminine enough; I was not African enough. The binary, the dichotomy, made me invisible in plain sight inside my own community. My transition went from being invisible in my own community while in plain sight to freeing myself from some negative thoughts.
Mwaluko: Blame came first, you said. Have you forgiven yourself?
Adero: I don’t have to forgive myself. It’s part of my struggle.
Mwaluko: Critics might say, “He wants to become a gay celebrity.” Critics might say, “There’s Anthony grandstanding by telling his story. He is making his misery ours by transferring the burden onto us.” Critics might say, “He’s ruining the already fragile image of gay Kenyans by suggesting we’re violent, that we gang rape because African men, black men, are depicted as rapists. Gay Kenyans, Africans, black men don’t need the kind of visibility Anthony’s story brings to light, given what white people say about black male sexuality.” Critics might question the intention behind two queer Africans putting this story forward. Why are you telling this story?
Adero: It brings me power to tell this story, to have a voice. I hope to bring voice and power to others who feel powerless, voiceless.
Adero: Nick, why do you connect to it?
Mwaluko: I’m African, queer, have a nonconforming body, experienced sexual assault and have a complicated relationship to masculinity. I hope our collaboration between two queer Africans is empowering to our community, especially because Africans are often depicted as powerless, voiceless. Also, I hope this exposure defeats the death threat looming over LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied) Africans by offering something beyond fear and death, which is truth, honesty. Creating this powerful covenant says once again to African governments who deny us or execute us, “We exist!” What would you like Africa to learn from your experience?
Adero: I am complex. Accept me. Embrace me. Appreciate what I have to offer. I am different. Why fear me? Change the homophobic laws so I can think about a future, marry if I want, have job security. In Africa, patriarchy and heterosexism are huge diseases. They impact my intimacy, my education, my religion, my politics, my personal health and the way I relate with my culture. How can we strip them away, Africa?
Mwaluko: What would you like LGBTQIA Kenyans to learn from your experience?
Mwaluko: Diversity within diversity?
Adero: Yes. HIV-positive LGBT Kenya belongs to the movement. African women activists who believe feminism is for women only? No. African lesbians in Africa can impose sexism onto gay African men just as much as gay African men can impose sexism onto African lesbians without knowing that we share similar struggles. We need to cut across boundaries for a strong allied LGBT movement so our struggle for freedom is more honest.
Mwaluko: What would you like the men who raped you to say to you?
Adero: I wish they could acknowledge my pain, tell me why they made me live in hell.
Mwaluko: What would you like to say to the men who raped you?
Adero: They have influenced me, forced me to look closely at my life, to look to life for meaning. My whole experience has given me a new sense of how I see issues. I hear the sound of truth, truth birthed by agony. They forced me to create that sound. They have truly influenced my destiny in a very positive way.
Mwaluko: What is it like living day to day with HIV in Kenya, in Africa? Give me a quick breakdown of your daily life.
Adero: Complicated. I have to fight through my condition. I face so much stigma, misunderstanding because of my sexuality. Few facilities take sensitivity seriously because of Kenyan culture. This threatens my security. Clinics rumored to serve my population — gay Kenyan men — face serious threats. Health care resources are not prepared for treating latency, which is to say they treat aspects of my illness at a late stage. To get the medication I have to meander, register myself into an overburdened system where the waiting list is long. Medication always depends on donor-funded projects, limiting my access. My job security is iffy because of my sexuality, so I can’t really afford proper standards of nutrition.
Mwaluko: Are you afraid of dying?
Adero: I have died. I was in hell. Then I rose from the dead. I’ve died many, many times and risen from the dead more times. No, I am not afraid of death nor what life brings.