Kenyan Woman in Kansas Speaks Out on her Gay wedding
Courtney and Terry Ng’endo celebrated their wedding like many couples. They threw a party with food, cake, music, dancing, pictures. But someone at the reception in Antioch Park in Merriam last spring apparently took their own pictures, and notes.
Then that unknown someone outed the Johnson County newlyweds to a Kenyan news organization: Terry, a native of Nairobi, Kenya, had married another woman.
Two days after their April wedding, Terry and Courtney’s picture appeared in one of Kenya’s biggest newspapers under this headline: “Kenyan woman weds her US bride in same-sex union.”
It was a historic wedding. Reaction to the first Kenyan woman to reportedly marry another woman was overwhelmingly negative. Recent polls suggest that 96 percent of the largely Christian population opposes homosexuality.
Gay rights in Kenya? They don’t exist.
So, not surprisingly, news of Terry’s wedding flashed through African blogs and media outlets like a backdraft of gossip.
Terry’s family in Kenya became targets of scorn. People threatened to burn down her sister’s bar. Strangers pounded on the gates of her mother’s house. The stress sent her mom to the hospital.
Unsure how local Kenyans would react, Terry spent the first weeks of her married life hiding in the apartment she shares with Courtney and Courtney’s two young sons.
The dust-up settled down. But now the newlywed women are ready to kick it up again by reaching out to other gay Africans here and abroad.
Their first step in becoming gay activists? Sharing their story publicly.
“Terry really is giving so many people courage,” says J Lo Mnati, a gay Kenyan friend of Terry’s living in Las Vegas.
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By coincidence, Antony Karanja, founder of Jambo Newspot, a website of Kenyan news, was in Kansas City attending another wedding the same weekend Courtney and Terry celebrated theirs in April.
When Karanja returned home to Dallas, the native Kenyan had several emails waiting for him.
Did you hear? A Kenyan woman married a woman in Kansas!
That was news to Karanja. There had been only one other reported case of a gay Kenyan marrying, and that had been two Kenyan men who married in 2009 in London.
If this rumor checked out, Karanja knew that this would be the first reported case of a Kenyan woman marrying another woman. And Karanja soon had a firsthand account from one of Courtney and Terry’s wedding guests. The woman who shared the information, Karanja says, “was not (in support of) the wedding. And when she attended, I think it was for curiosity purposes.”
Most homosexuals in Kenya are still in the shadows, afraid to live openly gay lifestyles for fear of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Many of their countrymen believe gays are un-African and not good Christians, and the prime minister states publicly that it is a crime in Kenya to marry a person of the same sex.
Mnati, a 32-year-old certified nursing assistant, was so afraid to be honest about her sexuality that she hid her feelings for women and married a man. She’s currently separated from him and in a relationship with another Kenyan woman. “We are not comfortable in Kenya,” she says of other gays living there. “We are very uncomfortable.”
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Courtney, 26, knew she was interested in girls when she was in middle school. She had girl crushes in high school but dated boys. When she was 17, she came out to an older gay friend who told her that if she wanted to “stay in the closet, that’s fine.”
So she did. After a few semesters at Oklahoma State University, she married her best friend of three years in a small church wedding in Wichita. She was 20 and, though she didn’t know it at the time, pregnant with her first child. She and her husband moved to Johnson County in December 2008 so their two boys could be close to Grandma.
While Courtney was growing up in Oklahoma, Terry, 25, was growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, the youngest of eight children raised by a single mom. Like Courtney, Terry knew in high school that she was attracted to women but stayed quiet about it, fearing reprisals far worse than disapproving family members.
Terry moved to the United States to study at Emporia State University. Here she felt free, and safe, to openly date women for the first time in her life. She later moved to Kansas City to live with a cousin and find work.
She met Courtney in May 2009 in a local reggae bar. Courtney and her husband had just moved to town. Sitting at the same table, alone, something clicked. “There was just something that I loved about her,” says Courtney, who works for a local car dealership. “I don’t know what it was. I just really loved it.
“It didn’t shock me because I was attracted to girls before.”
They talked and laughed and talked some more. Courtney asked for Terry’s phone number. Finally she’d found a woman worth coming out of the closet for. But there was an obvious problem. Courtney was married, though not happily, she says.
“I was getting older and learning more and more about myself,” Courtney says. “I just kind of kept myself in a box and didn’t tell anybody because I was married.”
Terry moved in after Courtney and her husband split up. “I was sad because it hurt him,” Courtney says. “But I was glad because I got to be myself.”
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On the night of April 14, they loaded up Courtney’s sons and four carloads of their friends, including Courtney’s sister, and drove to Des Moines. Iowa legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.
The next morning Terry put on a white suit, Courtney a pretty purple dress, and they got married in front of a judge.
Now who are you? Terry’s mom asked her in a phone call right after.
I’m Mr. Ng’endo, Terry joked.
• • •
The next day they were cutting a wedding cake in Antioch Park.
Two days later they appeared in the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation.
“I knew there was going to be a backlash,” Terry says. “It was bad because I always think about my mama. I hate what happened to her.”
To shield herself, Terry decided to “disappear from Facebook” because she suddenly had 100 friend requests from people she didn’t know — and was sure she didn’t want to know.
She did, though, read some of the comments made online to the Daily Nation story. Some of them called for her death.
“Some of the people were just rude and inhuman,” says Grace Njeru, a local Kenyan friend of the couple who served as Courtney’s maid of honor. “I could feel her pain, all the emotional turmoil she had to go through. After the wedding she changed from being so happy to being so sad.”
The women, however, are taking control of their own situation. They’re researching how to set up a group to support African gays, at home and abroad.
Their friend Mnati hopes the story will give other gay Kenyans the courage to come forward and start living openly, as she has in the last couple of years. “It will help us connect. But the other thing, it will help other people who have never come out to come out and to be free,” she says.
“People want to be themselves. But they can’t because of our culture. I want to encourage other gay people, just be you. Just be bold.”