‘I saw myself in RuPaul’: how Drag Race inspired LGBTQ+ Kenyans to find freedom | Global development

An viewers carrying face masks sits across the edges of a nondescript room in an unassuming constructing in the centre of Nairobi. Sparsely furnished and adorned with a number of posters promoting PrEP, a drug that reduces possibilities of contracting HIV, there’s a low hum of excited chatter.

Then the audio system crackle into motion, taking part in Candy Goals by Beyoncé, and in struts Toyo, a 23-year-old transgender girl, carrying a figure-hugging sparkly blue gown accessorised with brilliant purple painted nails and the ubiqitious face masks, in black. She walks to the top of the room, strikes a pose and struts again out. Toyo is adopted by Miss Okay – or Kelvin, when not in drag – 24, who’s carrying a purple strappy gown, lengthy black wig, faux Louboutin heels, and loads of make-up.

Toyo and Miss Okay are in the Dolls – a gaggle of homosexual, transgender and non-binary individuals who volunteer at Ishtar, a drop-in centre for males who’ve intercourse with males, and the venue for right this moment’s present.

For half an hour or so, members of the Dolls mannequin an array of outfits on their makeshift catwalk and carry out two lip-synced songs.


The Dolls shaped in late 2018 with 4 members. Now they’re 35, an instance of the rising confidence of the LGBTQ+ group in Kenya, the place homosexuality is criminalised and folks face stigma, discrimination and violence.

Ishtar is a drop-in centre for men who have sex with men in Nairobi. In Kenya, homosexuality is criminalised.
Ishtar is a drop-in centre for males who’ve intercourse with males in Nairobi. In Kenya, homosexuality is criminalised. {Photograph}: Brian Otieno/Global Fund

Ishtar, which receives funding from the Global Fund, belongs to the Homosexual and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya which started in 2006 with six organisations below its umbrella. Now there are about 20 member teams, together with some in rural areas, in accordance to Peter Njane, Ishtar’s director.

Njane says verbal abuse and discrimination stay however provides: “I’m seeing hope as a result of we’re seeing homosexual males out and about … A whole lot of adjustments have occurred in this nation.”

Toyo, one of many Dolls’ founding members, first heard about Ishtar from a homosexual man in her neighbourhood. “I used to be excited once I was advised about an organisation like that,” she says. “I assumed I used to be alone in this world. In my village, everybody threw stones at me saying “You’re so female, you’re so this …”

Volunteering at Ishtar, Toyo discovered a way of group and started excited about how she may unfold the phrase. She had performed some modelling and had a big following on Instagram, so teamed up with different volunteers and began experimenting with style, make-up and performing.

Then she saw RuPaul’s Drag Race – a US actuality tv present that paperwork a seek for drag stars – and was instantly inspired. “I saw myself in RuPaul – I may get into character, look good, everybody was joyful. Then I acquired out of character and nobody may bear in mind me. It’s such as you’re two folks in one physique,” she says.

“We may solely do these occasions, put on the garments and make-up, at Ishtar. Outdoors, we’re very completely different folks.”

Ishtar clinician Anthony Kikombo gives a transgender client a routine health check-up at the wellness centre.
Ishtar clinician Anthony Kikombo offers a transgender shopper a routine well being check-up on the wellness centre. {Photograph}: Brian Otieno/Global Fund

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than folks began asking to be a part of the group. Kelvin first saw the Dolls carry out in 2018 when he was finding out at style faculty. He joined final 12 months after he couldn’t afford to proceed his research. As Miss Okay, his first efficiency was lip-syncing to Whitney Houston’s I Will All the time Love You in entrance of about 70 folks.

“I cross-dressed in faculty and in public, however I wasn’t as joyful,” he says. “In Kenya, while you cross-dress, folks say one thing is incorrect with you. They pray for you to get demons out of you. I wasn’t doing it with different members of the LGBTQ+ group – individuals who know me, admire me for who I’m.”

He provides: “The Dolls help one another, mentor you. If there’s an issue, you possibly can inform them.”


Earlier than Covid hit, the Dolls have been gaining momentum and had began being invited to carry out at different LGBTQ+ organisations and a few personal occasions. That they had launched an annual Miss Ishtar pageant.

Regardless of issues attributable to the pandemic, Toyo has massive plans for the Dolls’ future. She desires to create a garments line for his or her style reveals. At the moment, shopping for outfits, equipment, footwear and make-up is a problem. Generally members get ladies to purchase gadgets, or purchase in bulk and from charity outlets to keep away from undesirable consideration, then customise outfits on the stitching machine at Ishtar.

Peter Njane, Ishtar’s director.
Peter Njane, Ishtar’s director. {Photograph}: Brian Otieno/Global Fund

She will get messages from folks throughout Kenya, from Mombasa and Kisumu, asking how they’ll arrange their very own model of the Dolls. “We’re like a pilot mission everyone seems to be taking a look at,” says Toyo.

“We wish to make the Dolls stronger and an instance for others, and produce other branches. It’s by means of these occasions that we create consciousness; I hope we will go to the mainstream media the place folks will cease judging us on our sexuality and begin seeing our expertise, our potential to do different issues … It’s about range, instructing different folks about who we’re.”

The Global Fund and their companions offered transport for the Guardian in Kenya

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