Scaly Kep’na is a Congolese human rights activist. He lives with his husband in Kinshasa and is the president of the LGBT association Jeunialissime. I had the pleasure of talking to him for an hour about LGBT rights in the DR Congo. And we started with the story of his own coming-out. Or rather his outing.
Bruno De Lille: When did you take the step to be open about your homosexuality?
Scaly Kep’na: That decision was actually made by others. About 12 years ago, I was outed by a cousin of mine. I was 25 years old and still living with my parents, when my cousin told my aunt that I was probably gay. And that I was dating the boy who came over to our house very often. Before I realised it, my parents were also told and they immediately asked me if it was true.
I had already started coming out to friends but not to my family. I didn’t feel ready for that yet. And nevertheless … when my parents asked me the question right away, I immediately confessed that I was indeed gay. I no longer felt like having to pretend to be anything other than what I was. My parents gave me an ultimatum: I was given 2 weeks to become straight again, otherwise I had to leave their house. I tried to make it clear to them that I had never been straight. And that there was therefore no point in waiting 2 weeks. That in that case they should kick me out of the house immediately. Which they did.
I went to live with a friend. My mother occasionally begged me to at least come home for dinner. But that was difficult, because mum wanted me to go to my father’s to apologise. But I didn’t see what I should apologise for? For my father, however, it was just intolerable that his eldest son, the one who was supposed to represent the family, was gay.
Today, I do see that he was also under very strong social pressure, that you also have to put his reaction in its cultural context and that he found it hard to disassociate himself from that. But for me, of course, it was incredibly shocking to find out that my parents, my father, no longer wanted me because I was gay. It hurt me a lot, made me rebel from noticing that I had a father who put what people said above his child. It was unbearable for both him and me.
He also wasn’t the only one who dropped me: my eldest sister said she would rather have had a criminal as a brother than a gay one. And my friends at church spread the gossip that I was involved in shady things and they started avoiding me. It was a very difficult period. My father also stopped paying for my studies so I felt like I was on my own for everything.
Bruno De Lille: That must have been terrible. Were you scared? Angry?
Scaly Kep’na: There was a lot of sadness, pressure and stress, yet most of all I felt peace. Because I no longer had to hide from the world. I no longer had to pretend. If someone asked, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?”, I no longer had to make up answers. I could be myself. That was so liberating that I didn’t want anyone to ever take that away from me again.
Consequently, things didn’t work out with my parents again. I did try, though. My mother tried to reconcile me with my father. For almost a year, we tried to live together. But every day in the morning, I heard my mother’s prayers, praying that God would free her child from his homosexuality. My sisters also constantly made allusions to my sexual orientation. And when I was away from home for a few hours to look for a job, I would be asked if I wasn’t prostituting myself during those moments anyway. It escalated to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to leave home. I said I didn’t know how I would manage, but I couldn’t live there anymore.
My boyfriend had just found a job and we started living together in a small flat. I left home and never went back.
Bruno De Lille: You had a difficult coming-out but today you are known beyond the DR Congo as an empowered LBGT activist. How did you take the step to start campaigning for equal rights for the entire Queer community?
Scaly Kep’na: To cheer me up, my boyfriend had given me a fake magazine. On the front page was my photo and above it the title ‘Génial’. I thought to myself: why not make this for real? A magazine that talks about the reality of gay people? When homosexuality is in the media here in the DR Congo, it is always in a negative way. I would love to make a magazine that talks about us in a neutral way because just like with heterosexuals, there are good and bad people among homosexuals. Homosexuality has nothing to do with anyone’s behaviour. We even had a title already: ‘Jeunialissime’, a contraction of ‘génial’ and ‘jeune’. But most people I asked to collaborate on the magazine didn’t dare. They thought it was too dangerous, preferred to live under the radar. There were a few who dared to stick their necks out but, in the end, we did not have enough resources and people to get a real magazine off the ground.
However, the handful of people who did want to join me had plenty of ideas and energy. We started organising debates on homosexuality in bars, restaurants and universities. And on 2 December 2012, our association ‘Jeunialissime’ was founded. And from then on, my closet door was wide open.
I have learned a lot myself since then. In the beginning, I could only talk about homosexuality because that was my reality. I only learned later that our struggle is also a struggle for human rights.
I also didn’t understand how someone I saw as a man could consider himself a woman. But I felt it was important to understand that. And so ‘Jeunialissime’, which I chair, has evolved from a group of gay men to an association that is also really open to lesbian, bi, trans and queer people. And allies. Because there are also straight people committed to our cause.
And then I started talking. I became active on all the social networks I could get my hands on. I opened Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud accounts…. everywhere I could talk, I opened an account and talked. And that attracted people who wanted to help, including financially. Which allowed us to work on social inclusion as well as advocacy towards institutions, opinion leaders and society.
Bruno De Lille: In Belgium, the Queer movement mainly went for equal legal rights. Looking at your website and publications, that is apparently not your priority. Don’t you believe equal legal rights are possible in the DR Congo?
Scaly Kep’na: Indeed, there is still a lot of work to be done in the DR Congo on the legal front. Fortunately, homosexuality is not punishable in the DR Congo. Many Congolese think it is but it is not. On the other hand, there are also no laws specifically protecting LGBTI+ persons. So we need to work on that, that’s important.
But still, it is indeed not our priority. Because right now we live in a society that stigmatises us. And even if we changed the law, it would not necessarily change people’s mindsets. A more inclusive society is more likely to accept inclusive legislation than a society that is totally unprepared. Otherwise, they will also shout at us that “Europe is coming to impose things on us”. So that is why we work mainly on creating support.
So there is “Tuko Pamoja”, which is Swahili for “We are together”. These are popular meetings where we invite people to come and tell us what they don’t like about LGBT people, what they are afraid of, why they think it’s ‘wrong’ … A lot of participants come with the idea “we’re going to convert them, we’re going to show them how dirty they are, that it’s unnatural …”. We do not condemn, nor do we immediately go on the counterattack, but first give some basic concepts about sex, gender, identity and how people can or want to express that identity.
In this way, those people discover that it is not just about being straight or gay, that it is much more diverse than that. Occasionally, we even have participants who start asking questions about themselves (laughs). And then we go on about what the law says, what religion dictates and how we can build an inclusive world where everyone can be themselves.
So the discussions afterwards are very different than if we had sought confrontation right away. Now they often show understanding or come up with solutions to problems we face. Some become ‘allies’ or ambassadors.
It is very brave to enter into discussions, to open your door to people who might be homophobic and might even act aggressively. Aren’t you afraid?
If you live in fear, you will never get anything done. Of course, we think carefully about our safety, we are not naive. We do not organise these activities in our safe spaces but in more public places where we also hire security. But we don’t let ourselves be restricted.
As I said, and this is an important difference from what is happening now in some other countries like Uganda, for example, it is not punishable under Congolese laws to be LGBT. Like all Congolese, we have the right to meet and talk to each other. So we cannot be arrested for coming together.
Bruno De Lille: You are very open about your homosexuality, on Facebook I see photos of you and your friend, and as an activist you are very visible. But many other LGBT people in the DR Congo prefer to live anonymously and are afraid of the reactions or of being discriminated against. But if you want to change things, it is important to be many. How do you deal with that?
Scaly Kep’na: Before people can speak in front of potentially hostile people like during ‘Tuko Pamoja’, for example, they have to feel strong and confident enough. But that comes step by step. I try to be an example for those people. By telling my story, by living my life openly. I am not going to hide the fact that in the beginning I received a lot of hate messages, that I even received death threats. So that’s why I always have to think about my safety. But most of the time, I am not bothered by them and can live my life freely. However, we are never going to force anyone: in our association, we have activities and spaces for everyone, no matter how open or closed they think they should be.
Bruno De Lille: Can LGBT people easily go out in Kinshasa? Are there LGBT parties or clubs, for example?
Scaly Kep’na: There are no special clubs. But gays and lesbians who want to meet each other have quite a few opportunities. In public spaces, fortunately, violence against LGBT people is quite rare. People will gossip or point but they won’t threaten you or hit you. If we are victims of violence, it is rarely in public but unfortunately often in family circles, by parents, siblings, uncles and cousins …
Bruno De Lille: In some African countries, opposition to LGBT people is hardening. Do you think this could also happen in the DR Congo?
Scaly Kep’na: I don’t think so. We fortunately have a lot of allies. It might be very difficult to change our laws to become pro-LGBT. A law on opening up marriage, will be too high for a long time. But there are people working to keep things at least neutral. And in the meantime, we are trying left and right to get small protections in the law accepted. There have been 2 or 3 attempts to get anti-LGBT laws voted through parliament, but each time they have been rejected.
Bruno De Lille: But is it going in the right direction? Do you feel like you are achieving something?
Scaly Kep’na: It’s a mixed story.
Recently, we took a step backwards in the law on adoption. Homosexuals, be they Congolese gays or foreign gays, are no longer allowed to adopt whereas before, this was not explicitly named. But then again, in the law on the fight against HIV, we were able to register an article explicitly prohibiting discrimination and stigmatisation of homosexuals.
In fact, Congolese law is way behind reality: even the Constitution does not mention trans persons or trans identity. This sometimes results in strange situations: if the law says that marriage is only allowed between two people of different sexes, does that mean that as a cis man I can marry a trans man? Can we then play with the law as we like, is that it?
Bruno De Lille: How fast do you see the situation evolving? And is the situation in Kinshasa evolving differently from the rest of the country, because the DR Congo is a country with big differences between the cities and the areas outside?
Scaly Kep’na: Kinshasa is of course a huge city, the heart of the DRC. And there are a lot of influences. Look at all those TV channels, for example: in almost every series and film these days, you see a gay character. The Kardashians with their father transitioning, that opens up the debate, everyone is talking about it. And also we, the activists and associations, get the chance to be very present in the media. So in Kinshasa, there is space, there is a certain freedom, people are open to discussion. But that is not necessarily the case in the country’s interior. There, the media are not very widespread and people still think a bit more old-fashioned. So it is more heated in the interior than here in the capital.
Bruno De Lille: What role does religion play in this?
Scaly Kep’na: That influence is declining. When I hear Congolese talking about religion, they are still very religious in the sense that they believe in God and in Jesus. But everyone puts their own personal twist on it. During the COVID period, there have also been a number of sex scandals involving religious leaders that made them lose a lot of their credibility. There are still a lot of people who are very attached to their gurus but I don’t think religion has the same impact as it used to.
Bruno De Lille: When will the first Kinshasa Pride take off?
Scaly Kep’na: We have not yet been able to organise a Pride event in Kinshasa, we are not that far yet.
But every year we organise a “Cupid evening”, an inclusive Pride evening that showcases local LGBT culture. There are dancers, there are speeches, there are singers, everyone wears make-up, it’s a great show.
And then there are the Hope Awards during Pride month. The Hope Awards are actually awards through which we congratulate activists and associations that have taken action to promote LGBT rights and human rights in general. They are presented around 17 May, the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.
But a Pride where we take to the streets doesn’t exist yet.
Bruno De Lille: Maybe in a few years? Do you have a message for the LGBT community in Belgium?
Scaly Kep’na: My message actually applies to everyone. Give yourself the right to be who you are, whatever life throws at you.
Life is very short, so live the life you want to live even if your loved ones don’t agree. There is always a way to choose your own family, to create your own entourage, to achieve mental balance. You can say no to everything, but never say no to yourself. Never.
>> Please note that this is a machine generated translation.