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LGBT Rights in Kenya: A Conversation with David Kuria

by Patrick Kurth

In anticipation of Barack Obama's recent trip to Nairobi, many Kenyan politicians publicly disparaged the president's support of LGBT rights, with one MP demanding that he leave 'the gay agenda' at home. Despite their protestations, Obama candidly addressed the state's discrimination against sexual minorities, prompting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to state that "for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue.”

To better understand the status of LGBT activism in Kenyan politics, I spoke with David Kuria, a former chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) and the nation's first openly gay candidate for public office. This interview was conducted via e-mail on July 25, while President Obama was in Nairobi.

In the run-up to Obama’s trip, dozens of Kenyan politicians and religious leaders disparaged the president’s advocacy of LGBT rights and refused to discuss Kenya’s queer community. Why do you think that they so adamantly resist engaging in dialogue?

It is hard to say why they refuse to engage in dialogue at the very least. But it will be much to their shame because President Obama invited prominent gay leaders in Kenya to both a closed door meeting with 17 civil society organizations and his public address to the Kenyan people – something none of the Kenyan leaders has ever done. The Kenyan president and his deputy should be thoroughly embarrassed that President Obama has beaten them to meeting with their own LGBT citizens.

Of course their personal opposition to engaging with a prominent supporter of universal civil equality is because they do not believe in civil rights or democracy. Remember that both the president and his deputy are former members of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the party of former president Daniel Moi who ruled Kenya with autocratic hand for 24 years.

President Obama’s attitude towards LGBT rights has changed during his political career  he was ‘undecided’ about civil unions as a state senator, but strongly endorsed same-sex marriage during his second presidential term. Has any Kenyan politician demonstrated a similar openness to rethinking his/ her position on LGBT rights?

For now there is no political leader who has shown enough courage even to be equivocal or appear ‘undecided’ on the issue of LGBT rights. It pays for them to hold an extremist position on this issue. We have however had retired politicians/high ranking civil servants such as the former powerful attorney general and minister for constitutional affairs Charles Njonjo write very progressive op-eds

Kenya's officials have rejected homosexuality as 'un-African' and identified deviations from heteronormativity as the legacy of white, Western imperialists. However, the provisions of the penal code that criminalize same-sex relations were handed down by the British government. How do opponents of the LGBT rights movement respond to this evident incongruity?

That is certainly an interesting angle to look at and I hope President Obama can raise it – especially the fact that the provisions in the penal code are in fact lingering evidence of what African writers have called ‘colonization of the mind.’  Unfortunately this argument is hardly ever raised in prominent enough circles – but I can tell you when activists raise this angle, the strategy by the opponents is often to ignore them.

When Uganda passed the 'Anti-Homosexuality Act' in 2014, the American government cut $2.4 million in aid that had been used to sponsor Uganda's community policing program. The Ugandan constitutional court eventually annulled the act, which many commentators saw as evidence that the government had given in to western pressure.

Do you believe that it is appropriate for western countries to condition support for Kenyan development programs on the decriminalization of homosexuality, the implementation of affirmative action programs, etc.?

The language of “conditionality” is thoroughly humiliating to aid-recipient countries, which then makes the intention of supporting LGBT rights counterproductive. At our foundation, we believe that development aid can actually get governments in Africa to move to decriminalize homosexuality by creating an opportunity cost to these laws. What if the U.S. said, "We do not believe people should be criminalized on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but we also cannot dictate whether you (Kenya or any other country), should engage in legal reform. What we will do however is of the $150 million that we are donating to you, $2 (or $20) million will go toward providing legal aid to gay and lesbian people in your country who are hauled into courts and criminal justice systems."

This creates a cost for the country – the $2 million is being reallocated on account of criminalization, and if the country decriminalized, the funding would go to education, health, or other sectors. This is an opportunity cost for the government, and they soon realize that they really do not care for criminalization after all.

That is the strategy we have been advocating, by calling for a fund to cover legal liability on account of criminalization. We believe this would have a domino effect on all criminalizing countries in a matter of years, if not months.

The rhetoric of LGBT activism is often shaped by the abstract language of law, which can fail to convey the traumatic experiences routinely suffered by LGBT individuals. Would you mind speaking, either from first- or second-hand experience, to the very real effects of discrimination in Kenya?

The language of rights and the usual legal lexicon is good and has its place, but the situation faced by all Kenyans is perhaps best exemplified by the statements of Deputy President William Ruto, who says that LGBT people engage in “dirty things.” This is deeply insulting and denigrates LGBT people.

Unfortunately this attitude is not limited to politicians alone, it is commonplace among religious leaders and unfortunately is has become the norm. Stigma has consequences even at an individual level because LGBT youth internalize these messages, which negatively impacts their self-agency and their lives’ outcomes. They do not live to their fullest potential. This is not something that is actionable in the usual legal mechanisms, but it’s very unjust.

In the context of layered forms of vulnerabilities, poor or weak LGBT people will most probably experience violence or be denied services but they will not be connected to a social network that can help them access legal redress. It is interesting that in Kenya today, married gay men face the highest levels of blackmail and it’s fairly routine.

In a July 2010 interview, you stated that you expected de facto change to precede a de jure amendment, with activists winning broad-based support and then convincing the public to pressure officials into decriminalizing same-sex relations.

Five years on, which do you see changing first — attitudes or the law?

I think on the whole there is overwhelming evidence that when people personally know someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender they are less likely to hold extremist views. So I think that as LGBT people become more publicly visible, tolerance will increase.

Yet it is also important to add that at the time of that interview we had a government that was largely unbothered by our activism. With the current regime the situation is not the same. The deputy president especially is a virulent homophobe, so continued existence of criminal sanctions means an opportunity for the state to use its coercive power to limit the exercise of the rights of LGBT persons. So in this context decriminalization is very important and urgent.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

*****

*****

David Kuria is the former chairmen of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya and founder of the Kuria Foundation.

Patrick Kurth is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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