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Raila owes Kenyans an apology, not denial, over statement against gays

Sunday December 5 2010

By RASNA WARAH

The careless and highly inflammatory remarks about homosexuals made by Prime Minister Raila Odinga have understandably led to outrage among civil society and gay rights activists in Kenya and in the Diaspora.

At a public rally at Kibera, the Prime Minister ordered the arrest of all gay couples in the country because “it is madness for a man to fall in love with another man while there are plenty of women (in Kenya)” and “there is no need for women to engage in lesbianism when they can bear children”.

Raila further stated that the new Constitution forbids same sex relationships (which is not true — while the Constitution forbids same sex marriage, it is silent about same sex relationships).

What is evident from Raila’s speech in Kamukunji is that he has very little knowledge about homosexuality. First of all, people are not attracted to persons of the same sex because there is a shortage of people of the opposite sex.

Sexuality is not a supply and demand issue — psychologists will tell you, it is innate, and some people are just wired to be gay.

There are, of course, extreme situations, such as prisons, where men will have sex with other men. But even in those situations, the men practising homosexuality are not technically gay and would not consider themselves to be so.

There are also gay men and women who choose to be celibate, so, technically, they do not engage in any form of sex, but they consider themselves to be gay.

The Prime Minister’s views on women’s bodies were even more disappointing. The assumption that women’s main role is to produce babies is highly insulting, not just to women, but to all Kenyans who voted for a new gender-sensitive Constitution that views women as more than just reproductive machines.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect about the Prime Minister’s statements were that they were being uttered at a time in our country’s history when hate speech has been officially recognised as a punishable offence, and when the country is embarking on a brave new era of tolerance, accountability and equity.

Even more scary is the fact that his inflammatory words have the power to lead to violence. In an interview with the BBC’s Network Africa, David Kuria of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya said that the order by the Prime Minister might be construed as another opportunity by police officers and others to blackmail homosexuals and extort money from them.

Even though there is no law that defines homosexuality as a crime in Kenya, Raila’s statements might be construed as a prime ministerial directive (much like the presidential directives Moi used to issue) and lead to violence against gays.

Keguro Macharia, a US-based academic, wondered whether gender is now replacing ethnicity to create new divisions among Kenyans.

“At a moment when Kenya is struggling to develop strategies to apprehend and try those responsible for inciting ethnic-based violence, it is surprising that Raila feels emboldened to incite gender- and sexuality-based violence,” he wrote on the Concerned Kenyan Writers google group site.

Even worse, says Macharia, in a country where policing is often understood as a community affair and where public lynching is tolerated both by the police and the public, the call to arrest gays by none other than Raila sanctions discrimination and violence.

“Even more troubling”, he notes, “the Prime Minister has implicitly suggested that there are different standards for citizenship, and that sexuality is one of those standards. Good Kenyans are hetero-nationalist, their bodies bound to serve the nation.

Homosexuals, on the other hand, cannot qualify for full or proper citizenship. They are criminals, because they fail to fulfil their hetero-reproductive duties.”

Raila’s utterances have been construed as hate speech by civil society activists, who are calling for sanctions against him. His words have also led to a flurry of activity on blogs and listservs. Many Kenyans are now wondering whether he will be their choice as the next presidential candidate.

The Prime Minister has issued a statement saying that he did not make any order of arrest of homosexuals during his speech. (I would urge him to see the video footage of his speech). Kenyans would have preferred an apology.

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