In Kenya, gay sex acts carry a penalty of 14 to 22 years in jail. The Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007 found that 96 percent of Kenyans believe homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept. Commonly referred to as ‘gayism’ in Kenyan discourse, deviant sexualities are seen to cut against the grain of both Christian values and Kenyan cultural beliefs. Stories of Our Lives, a 2014 film directed by Jim Chuchu, aims to give voice to the experiences of some of the most marginalized members of Kenyan society.
The film is produced by Nest Collective, who collected and archived stories of LGBTQI individuals in Kenya, then turned a handful of them into short films. Five of these vignettes are strung together to make Stories of Our Lives: two are about lesbian relationships, and three about gay men. The characters in the film each negotiate the difficulties of communicating their sexualities to friends and loved ones. When Patrick visits a gay club, his friend sees him, follows him home and beats him, for fear that he will be perceived as gay by association. Katie, a lesbian in high school, is suspended for kissing her girlfriend; when she arrives home, her mother angrily bans her from ever wearing trousers. The characters’ relationships are shrouded in fear and secrecy: after an anti-gay group on TV calls for citizen arrests on queer folk, a lesbian couple lies awake at night in terror, wondering what will happen when they come for them.
The film remains banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board for ‘promoting homosexuality which is contrary to [Kenyan] values’. Despite the attempts of Nest to keep their identities anonymous, the executive producer was identified and arrested for violating the country’s Films and Stage Plays Act. The shame and fear of the characters in the film is made more harrowing by the knowledge that millions of LGBTQI individuals in Kenya endure this intense social stigma, rejection from their communities and the threat of physical violence.
However, there is also a sense of hope in the authentic and deeply loving relationships that the film portrays. Each relationship is itself an act of resistance in the face of a profoundly prejudiced society. As the lesbian couple lie awake at night, one of them imagines running away to a secret island, where ‘anyone who needed to run could come’. Exquisitely shot on grainy black and white film, the two women dance, laugh and kiss–a joyous, tender moment in an otherwise fairly bleak film. Stories of Our Lives is a masterfully crafted reminder of the different barriers that queer individuals face in other parts of the world and an exquisite depiction of the beauty and power of non-normative relationships.