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Queer Questions’ Podcast Takes on Stigma, Stereotypes in Kenya

LGBTQ activists Anthony Oluouch (left) and Immah Reid (right) co-host the weekly podcast "Queer Questions" from Nairobi, Kenya. Rael Ombuor

"Is HIV a gay disease?"

This is one of the topics discussed on a new episode of "Queer Questions" -- a Kenyan podcast that is taking on stigma and stereotypes with an openness that is both rare and risky in a country where homosexual activity is illegal.

The main risk-takers behind the show are two LGBTQ activists, Immah Reid and Anthony Oluouch, who co-host the weekly program from Nairobi.

Now on its eighth episode, Reid and Oluoch have been taking questions from anonymous listeners ranging from whether you can be gay and Muslim to queries about the down and dirty details of sex.

And now: "Is HIV a gay disease?"

"I need to tell you," Reid begins, "the biggest epidemic that has happened to our country in the last three decades has been this. It's affected not only queer people but also straight people."

"It's called human immunodeficiency," Oluoch adds, "not gay people immunodeficiency."

Posting on Soundcloud, with a companion Facebook page, the show is getting hundreds of listeners each episode -- mostly from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, countries with similarly harsh anti-gay laws.

In Kenya, same-sex acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison, though the law is rarely enforced. Still, authorities have been cracking down on other attempts to speak openly about LGBTQ issues.

In August, Kenya's Film Classification Board threatened to shut down a sex-themed podcast called "The Spread" after misleading media reports that it was hosted by two lesbians. Nothing has come of the film board's promise to investigate the matter, and as of reporting, "The Spread" is alive and well.

While LGBTQ activist groups made some headway arguing for their rights in Kenya's courts, the larger battle is against a society that remains vehemently anti-gay. Oluoch himself was identified and attacked by a group of men on the street in 2014 after he appeared on a TV show discussing gay rights.

He says the tension in Kenya stems from misunderstandings that "Queer Questions" aims to address.

"The only way to get society to understand is to speak to them," he says, "to answer the questions that they have in their heads that they do not want to ask anyone and the questions they have always wanted to ask gay people but have not had any outlet for it."

Among the questions the show has answered since launching in April:

"How do you decide who is a man and who is a woman in gay or lesbian relationship?"

"Do gay men have a G-spot?"

"What advice do you have for queer people who can't come out because of their environment?"

LGBTQ activist Immah Reid, co-host of Kenya's "Queer Questions" podcast Rael Ombuor

The hosts are both veterans of LGBTQ activism in Kenya -- Reid works for Artists for Recognition and Acceptance, and Oluoch was the previous director of the Gay Kenya Trust. They have a living-room vibe on air: joking, teasing each other, lots of laughter. The tone is a deliberate attempt to drop the "NGO language," as Reid puts it, "that takes us away from the community."

They both say the podcast was inspired by their own personal struggles from childhood finding accurate information about sexuality.

Reid grew up in a Catholic household and was sent to a boarding school at 10 years old, where she says "everything you hear about homosexuals was bashing and demonizing." She says it took her years to realize that there was nothing wrong with her.

Oluoch struggled with depression to the point of considering suicide before finally accepting himself. When he came out to his mother, he says she called a bishop to "pray the gay away."

The podcast has had its share of negative backlash too, with preachy comments on their Facebook page warning the pair that they are going to hell and urging them to rid their "demons."

On the most recent episode of "Queer Questions," a listener asked "Can you guys just stop being gay?"

They laughed off the question.

For Reid, the negativity is just part of the conversation. "If there is a way to reach an understanding it is to talk," she says, "and if we do not do that, I do not think we will ever understand each other."

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