OPINION: Edwin Chiloba was a bold and brave icon – his death has sparked a movement

Wednesday, 18 January 2023 16:00 GMT

Kenyan LGBT activist Edwin Chiloba poses for a selfie in Narayanganj, Bangladesh March 14, 2022 in this picture obtained from social media. Courtesy of Edwin Chiloba via Facebook/via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hundreds have paid their respects to Kenyan LGBTQ+ activist Edwin Chiloba after his body was found on January 3. His life epitomised fluidity, freedom and fierceness

Kevin Mwachiro is a writer, journalist and LGBTQ+ activist based in Kenya.

One of my favourite photographs of Edwin Chiloba shows him modelling one of his creations.

His large round spectacles sit on a stern face and the rest of the outfit screams colour. Edwin is ‘serving’, as the term goes.

He wears a sweater that stops halfway down his torso, revealing a bare stomach. The sleeves are rainbow-coloured, and the colour scheme is replicated on one side of his trousers, where denim is replaced by rainbow-coloured beads that veil his leg. In his hand, he holds a handbag of many colours like a boss.

Across his chest are the words icon, written in gold.

I wish when I was 25, I had an icon like Edwin. Then, my journey to self-acceptance would have been less fraught with pain, shame, and self-loathing.

When I first saw the picture, I thought, “this kid is so brave”. The photo was posted on Instagram with the caption: “Be fearless, be bold and be you!”

I never met Edwin physically, though we had chatted on the socials occasionally, and his words were often kind and affirming.

He represented a new wave of not just Kenyan, but young African LGBTQI+ activists who have found a place for themselves, where they are secure in their identity and community.

They have found answers to their questions regarding their sexuality or identity, and even the space to challenge traditional gender norms.

They know they aren’t alone. The internet has offered many of Edwin’s generation a refuge they may not get at home or in their respective society.

Many of them, like Edwin, epitomise fluidity, relative freedom, and fierceness. And they are doing this on home soil.

I envied Edwin, and I admire his generation, for they can live their best queer lives from a young age. Their journey is less complex compared to us older queers.

But being as bold as Edwin isn't easy, especially when your hometown is not as cosmopolitan as the major Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Mombasa.

Fashion was his chosen tool for advocating for LGBTQI+ rights in a country that outlaws male same-sex relations and where sections of society and state structures easily discriminate and stigmatise its queer citizenry.

Edwin, whether in sequins or heels, was a person on a mission, as stated in one of his December Instagram posts: “So my movement is for everyone. It's about inclusion. And if I am going to fight what I have been marginalised for, I am going to fight for all marginalised people.”

When I heard the news of his death, like many within the community here in Kenya, I feared it was yet another homophobic attack. The news made me feel angry, sad, and unsafe, and I slept early that night, troubled.

Less than a year ago, Sheila Lumumba, a non-binary lesbian, was raped and murdered in her own home. Chriton Atuhwera, a Ugandan refugee, succumbed to burn injuries inflicted on him in a homophobic attack at the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

They added to the list of the unsolved murders of Rose Mbesa, Joash Moseti and Erica Chandra. We had lost another one of our own.

The police later revealed a twist in the tale of Edwin’s death, that his boyfriend is the key suspect. A motive has not been shared by investigators.

But this hasn’t stopped the clamour for justice. Edwin didn’t deserve to die or be disposed of the way he was.

There are concerted efforts from activist groups to ensure that justice is Edwin’s ‘shield and defender’, to quote a phrase from our national anthem.

Despite the uncharacteristic expediency of the police in arresting the suspects, many within the community are wondering whether the same Force will ever be a safe space for LGBTQ+ people fleeing abuse - or if our pain will remain equally as invisible as our existence.

The issue of safety has become more apparent now than ever before, for our homes and beds can be so easily stained by our blood. Our queerness seems a little more precarious, and our love must keep one eye open.

Edwin may not have imagined that his wide smile, handsome looks, and unique fashion style would grace news outlets worldwide. This may have been different from the way he dreamed of achieving notoriety.

But his death has galvanised a movement once again. He has brought allies out of the closet, exposed the new generation of African queerness, and amplified what he wished for everyone; to be the best version of themselves.

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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