Wigs For Refugees Or What Could We Do?
by Tatu Vuolteenaho



Geoffrey with a Rainbow flag


A year ago I got a Facebook friend request from Geoffrey Rainbo. I looked at his profile and saw that he is a LGBT+ rights activist from Africa and we have some nice mutual friends, so I clicked accept. That started an eye-opening friendship over the internet.

Soon Geoffrey started to ask for financial help. I was explaing to him that I'm actually that poor that I sometimes have to ask my mum to help to pay my bills. Wait a minute, I'm that fortunate that at the age of 50 I can still get financial help from my mum. I'm also extra fortunate because I have been able to do drag safely on the international club scene for the past 30 years. Geoffrey's parents abandoned him when he was 18 and he had to get out of Uganda to stay alive after his trans friend was burned. The general attitude in Uganda is "kill the gays" and that was almost made into a law. When Geoffrey wrote to me he had already been homeless and after that 3 years in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The Refugee camp got too dangerous because the other refugees and even police were homofobic. Group of the refugees got into a safe place in Nairobi, Kenya, but there were no funds to keep that safe space going. Geoffery is now 23 and could face homelessness again. Thanks to his international online friends Geoffrey was able to rent a very modest home for him and his friend for month in Nairobi.


Geoffrey with a friend during Kakuma Pride


If I had been born in Uganda I would very likely be dead already, because I could not pass as a straight man. If some drunk in Finland starts to talk to me, soon he asks are you gay? And continues: "that's fine, my cousin is gay" etc. So usually there is no real danger in Finland for being gay. If someone in a homophobic country discovers you are gay that might equal death sentence, unless you get out.

Even though my income is much less than the income of an average European person I thought I could still help a person like Geoffrey if I buy less things. So I thought I'm not buying a new wig and donate that money instead. That money can keep someone alive for a while and I can just tease my old wigs bigger.

I thought that was such a clever idea: buy less,help more! I published things like that on Facebook and a link to a donation page. Don't buy a new wig (and help the oil based industry to destroy our planet), instead, help queers stay alive in other part of the world. Only a couple people liked and no-one donated because of my facebook posts.


The area of LGBT+ refugees in Kakuma suffered from Floods


Geoffrey doesn't have regular Internet or Facebook access. Once he had to sell his mobile phone to get food. His facebook profile had been hacked and he had to start building his online connections again. I offered that I could publish info and fotos for him in a specific FB page and they would remain there even if his profile dissapeared again. I posted links to that page and invited friends to like it. Maybe some people got more aware about the life of LGBT+ refugees in Africa, but only a couple of my FB friends liked the page.

Next I told Geoffrey that I could try to write an article about him and his refugee friends and try to get it into some online gay magazine. But I din't feel like I know enough to write professionally about this issue. Or I felt like I can only tell about the miseries the refugees face, like floods or homophobics destroying their tents at the refugee camp, or outbreak of chloera in Nairobi, or Geoffrey suffering from ulcers. I felt like I can't offer solutions or positive viewpoits, but now when Geoffrey is possibly facing homeless again I promised him I will finally write this. I still don't know much, but can write about my communication and thoughts with Geoffrey. If the homophobic countries don't change there will be more and more LGBT+ refugees and more of us "fortunate queens" will be asked to help.


You have almost nothing and then come the floods


I have noticed many of my own fears that came up in this situation with Geoffrey. I was afraid that what if many other refugees start asking for help, how would I cope? Would I just need to ignore them? That fear didn't happen, but imagine if I was a millionare, I could help many people!

There is also a fear that what if the people who ask for help are genuine? Are the donations going to the people who need them? Are there money scams? I learned that it is good to be cautious. For example I had donated two times small amounts trough one Gofundme page that was linked from Geoffrey's Facebook page. Third time the money didn't get to Geoffrey and the person who had made that gofundme page didn't respond. No idea what happened, but next time I donated I made sure the person who had made the gofundme page can be trusted.


Many LGBT+ refugees have suffered from violent attacks


There are also other trust issues and drama in the life of refugees. For example, the temporary place where the LGBT+ reguees stayed in Nairobi had some tension between Ugandan refugees and other LGBT+ refugees from other countries. They were accusing that the Ugandans get more favorable treatment. There were also tensions between the refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp and the locals in that area. The locals feel that the refugees get better treatment than the locals as the refugee camp has schools for the children but the poor locals around the camp don't have schools.

And as if life wasn't hard enough Geoffrey has also experienced that you can't even trust you close friends. Geoffrey had plans to to find a place with his friends after the temporary shelter place in Nairobi was shut down. One friend with who Geoffrey had experienced a lot during this refugee journey basically just ran off with money that was meant to be shared in finding a home for many.


LGBT+ demonstrations in Kakuma refuge camp


Even "normal" ways of doing business in Africa can seem like corruption to someone who comes from one of the least corrupted countries in the world. For example Geoffrey might get a job as a waiter trough pribing the manager of a restaurant. He had paid the manager so he would do a job interview and could consider to employ Geoffrey as a waiter. That's how things work in Africa, Geoffrey told me.

One of my fears have been that what if Geoffrey is demaning too much time (even if I can't afford financial help). Goeffrey has often told he is sorry he hasn't been able to write back in a week's time. I always told him not to worry, I don't reply him that fast either. I don't even talk that often to people I know in real life. But he keeps writing and asking how was my weekend or asks about gay life, clubs, prides etc. I have told him that in Madrid we have million people celebrating pride and that I have played music in gay clubs with thousand of gorgeous men dancing. I even told him that in Finland we have had openly gay candidate for a president. I also told Geoffrey that yes, the governments know about gay clubs and they pay taxes just like any other businesses. Well, I thought if he writes and asks at least I write back and try to do it well. Maybe reading about someone elses life or about life on the "other side" gives him hope. Or if some older queen who seems to be ok puts time time and effort to communicate with Geoffrey, maybe that makes him feel a bit better. Even though many people have told me not to get personally involved with refugees I feel good that I have chosen to use my time to write with him.


LGBT+ refugees on a way to Nairobi for a safer space


As I had promised to write about Geoffrey I started also to ask personal questions. I thought that if the interview / article is more personal maybe it could inspire readers to help. We discussed about relationships etc, Geoffrey told that he is single, had a relationship when he was still in Uganda, but that relationsihp didn't last. I also told that I'm single and why. Then Geoffrey starts telling that he is interested in older men because they seem more trustworthy. And soon his writing gets too much into "I love you" -type of talk. Then I had to tell him not to fall in love with me, I'm only nice because it's common sense to try help those who are in need.

Many refugees might dream of some nice person on the "safe side" to fall in love with and to "rescue" them. I know that these kind of international relationships have sometimes worked with a happy ending or at least love and romance has helped getting out of the dangerous country to a new start. Personally I see nothing wrong with this. I was not desperate to get out of Finland but my move to London in 1999 happened because I had met someone in that city.


Safe space for LGBT+ refugees in Nairobi was full


Why did Geoffrey want to be my Facebook friend in the first place? He saw my fotos and in many of them I looked similar to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters have been known to do charity work and have also helped refugees like Geoffrey so he thought I could be a nice person too. Geoffey has also told me that he has asked Facebook friendship with many other people and have asked help from many trough Facebook, but mostly people ignore him.

Geoffrey has used a term "social media beggar" about himself. That is how he tries to make a living at the moment. He is originally from an ordinary family in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda and could be seen as having an "Afrian middle class" background. He started to study to become an electrician, but the studies were not finished and he would like to continue them some day. Geoffrey can already do some basic electrical jobs, but even to get these kind of jobs he would need a basic toolkit. Donations could help in this too.


Cholera outbreak in Nairobi among the refugees


I think that Geoffrey coud work at some international refugee helping oraganisation. He has good communication skills in English and has seen the life of refugees and could have ideas on what kind of help could be the most useful. Geoffrey has already rised awareness about African rainbow refugees and has inspired me to include a charity aspect in my next art project Queer Witches.

Geoffrey has been interviewd already by UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) and is now waiting to get placed in some less homofobic country. Possibilities are Norway, France, Canada or USA. The resettelment decision could take 7-15 months. He is now also writing memories about his life as a LGBT refugee in Africa. Let's hope they will soon get published with a happy ending.

When I was little my mum gave me advice when playing with the kids in my neighbourhood: help those who are less able so they can do and enjoy the same things as you do. Now we just need to extend this thinking to include the whole world. So, basically all of us who are part of the safe world could help those who aren't there yet. So don't buy a new wig but donate to refugees instead. And... tease old wigs bigger and charge more to do drag so you can donate even more!


Happy moments during the Kakuma LGBT pride



Links:

African Human Rights Coalition (AHRC) needs more funds to help LGBT+ in emergency situations. I have been in contact with Melanie Nathan who is an Executive Director of African Human Rights Coalition. www.AfricanHRC.org and they say: "At African HRC we direct funds to most marginalized individuals directly - as and when we are able. We also provide USA donors with tax deduction under the law as we are a non profit project. We are all volunteers who take no salaries."

Gofundme page, that gets funds to Geoffrey directly https://www.gofundme.com/we-stand-with-lgbt-refugees (organised by Wes McGaughey in San Fransisco)

Uplift Support for Rainbow Refugees: https://www.facebook.com/Uplift-Support-for-Rainbow-Refugees-338129946977252 (a Facebook page with some info about Geoffrey and his journey, edited by Tatu Vuolteenaho)

www.thequeerwitchproject.com/ (new art project by Tatu Vuolteenaho where part of the art sales would go to helping people like Geoffrey)


Geoffrey posted this picture in May, sending thanks for the donations