Arriving in Toronto from Kenya, where being gay is considered "unnatural," immoral and taboo, Sarah Ombija was able to live openly as a bisexual woman for the first time this year. Homosexuality remains criminalized in Kenya, where same-sex sexual acts can be punished with a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment. In August, a bill advocating for life imprisonment for gay sex acts among Kenyans and death by stoning for foreigners was struck down. LGBTQI people are routinely harassed, extorted and attacked. Ombija, a 35-year-old fashion designer and gay-rights activist, spoke with The Globe about living in secret in Nairobi and coming out in Toronto.
I knew I had feelings for women while in high school but my dad brought us up with strict rules. I'm a single mother of triplet daughters and could not be openly gay because of my kids and because of my family. My kids were less than a year when I started a secret relationship with a lady for six years. It was my first relationship with a woman. We had met in college. She was known as my best friend, so no one really suspected that we had that kind of relationship. We were together most of the time.
We hung around white people a lot and most of them don't really care if you're gay or not. It was easier to be a little bit more open when we were with them; we were able to be affectionate. But amongst other people it was not so easy.
Being a gay person in Kenya is life-threatening. If you expose yourself you are looking for your death because there is zero tolerance for homosexuality. Gays are constantly attacked, harmed and even killed. As a lesbian – especially a beautiful woman – the men would never accept and allow you to even say you are lesbian. Lesbians are "taught lessons" and raped.
We were always cautious. The father of my kids is a magistrate. He was a judge so he had to keep it a secret and not expose us because that meant me being punished. I had to protect my kids.
In late 2013 I came to Canada. I had a visa and I was coming to expand my fashion business. I came as a visitor.
When I was here, my partner attended a gay party in Kenya. Normally the gay parties are closed and secretive. They don't allow cameras or phones. But she was arrested. That made me get more and more scared. In Africa, if you're not gay there's no way you're going to be amongst gay people: They just don't mix. Now, my being gay was exposed back home by my partner attending this party. People who knew me and her knew we used to go out together all the time. She was taken to the city hall court. They had everything they needed to prove I had been committing a crime punishable in the court of law.
I applied for refugee status in Canada. I had to sit down and write my story: Why you want Canada to protect you, why you want to stay, why you think your life is in danger back home. I also had to prove that I was gay. Usually the Immigration and Refugee Board needs evidence to prove your claim. I'd taken a picture with my girlfriend and I had other gay friends who knew about our relationship. It was my life and I lived it. I was not afraid to go and tell the story in court. My claim was approved in July, 2014.
When I came to Canada I learned about gay rights and how gays can live freely. Nobody really bothers you, nobody really cares. It took a while to get used to because I didn't really believe it: Is it really true that I can be openly gay here? What if somebody attacks me or the police arrest me? In my head I was always committing a crime by having a relationship with a person of the same sex. When I heard police sirens, I thought, 'Oh my God, they're coming for me.' But it was just paramedics or fire trucks.
I met a partner here and we dated for about five months. The first time being publicly gay, it was kind of weird. In the subway, she wants to kiss me and I'd be shy. At first it felt weird but it doesn't feel weird any more. I consider myself bisexual but I am continuously discovering my sexual orientation. Sometimes I feel like I have no attraction to men and think I am a lesbian. Time will tell.
As an African you always feel like it's unnatural. I was thinking when I go back home they're going to ask me all these questions. Am I going to lie? Am I going to come out and be truthful with them? If I see my parents, what will I do? Will they accept me as I am or will they be hard on me?
I've met other people from Kenya and Jamaica and it's beautiful to see that black people are allowed to be openly gay, and people from countries such as Russia. You see the pain in their eyes and you see the anxiety. I'm interested in looking after the gay people from other parts of the world because I see the pain they go through and how lost they are. I'd love to give back what I got from the community here that has been really helpful to me. I have people coming to me all the time, asking me to help write them letters for their refugee claims. I am planning to start fundraising for LGBTQ newcomers. That is a New Year's resolution.
During Pride Toronto I was able to walk the walk and say, "I am queer, I am here, get used to it." It was so beautiful. It felt like a coming-out parade to me: my first gay pride parade. Another very happy occasion was when my refugee claim was accepted – finally knowing I am a Canadian and free to practise my sexual orientation. Nobody will kill me for that, the police will not arrest me for being gay. That is the most beautiful thing I have ever had in life.
As told to Zosia Bielski. This interview has been condensed and edited.