When Melissa Muthoni became pregnant at the age of 18, she learned to deal with social rejection. 'I broke one of the cardinal rules: whatever you do, don’t get pregnant in a small town in Kenya,' says Melissa, who calls this a pivotal moment in her life. She resisted the life others wanted to impose on her. Her choice was to become a mother, and in 1997 she gave birth to her son.
Currently, she runs a hotline in Kenya that provides information about sexual and reproductive health. If only such a hotline existed when she was 17. Melissa believes that through comprehensive education and counselling, people can make better decisions. 'Body and sexuality: those are the pinnacle of all choices,' she says.
Melissa joined the hotline one year after its creation ten years ago. It soon became the target of criticism and was called 'the abortion hotline'. However, Melissa fought to change this. After discussion with various sexual minority groups, the need was felt for a hotline for everyone, both straight and LGBT people. The hotline now works in both Swahili and English, has trained counsellors and has a comprehensive referral system. From October 2013 to May 2014, it received over a thousand calls.
Melissa is currently working on a new hotline service specifically designed for transgender and gender non-conforming people, which will be the first of its kind in Africa. Melissa is herself a ‘non-conformer’; not only because she was an unmarried mother 16 years ago, but because she married a woman with whom she fell in love.
'Growing up, I was cynical about love, until I met my wife. What made me feel attracted to her is that I can be myself and we don’t play power games. We don’t have the stereotypical problems that many relationships have. I was looking for someone who accepted me as I am. I fought for this kind of relationship and I came up with a soul mate. I wanted to make it work, so I lost some friends along the road. But the person who you want to stay with for the rest of your life is worth fighting for. This is someone who respects me and respects the work I do, which is very rare to find.
I wasn’t going to loose that because society tells me it is not correct.
'She and her wife have been together for five years and were married in August 2012 in Brooklyn, New York, during her wife’s fellowship in the US. Melissa comes from a very conservative family but believes they have come to respect her choices.
'Once when my father was in Nairobi he called to say he wanted to visit me and bring some aromatic rice he had bought for me.' Melissa did not have to introduce her wife as her wife or tell him she was gay. Her father just acknowledged an evident reality by visiting her, talking with her wife and having a good time. Melissa also told me that her parents understood that 'they had raised a generation that created their own ideas', and they always allowed her to live independently.
As an activist, Melissa understands that questions and issues of choices are at the core of everyone, straight or LGBT. She believes that removing repressive legislation is fundamental to enabling people to make their own choices and to access services. Unlike some other African countries, Kenya doesn’t have a repressive constitution, but Melissa thinks there’s still a long way to go before people can make their own choices freely.
Melissa is clear about the changes she would like to see: 'More Kenyans need to be more assertive, they need to recognise that each of us is different, in terms of culture, practices, and beliefs. I want us to recognise our identities and be respectful of our choices.'