Debate on the gay rights shows progressive change in Kenya

Friday February 19 2010


There is a robust debate on gay rights in Kenya which does not seem to go away. No doubt these discussions signal progressive change in Kenya.

The country, in airing divergent views on this matter, has definitely made one striking democratic gain. The limitations of free expression have been torn asunder.

There is a culture of challenging orthodoxy by a new generation of Kenyans who want to shape the destiny of their country. In engaging in a public discourse on the rights of sexual minorities some sections of the population reflect commendable maturity.

Yet, we are not out of the woods yet. Homophobia still rears its ugly head in the name of abuse, stereotyping, violence, lies, discrimination, exclusion and threats to murder.

The Mtwapa incident shows that two religions that cannot agree on the inclusion of kadhi’s courts in the new constitution can be bed fellows when it comes to attacks on gay rights.

Whether what happened at Mtwapa was stage managed or real, the fact of the matter is that the forces of homophobia do not want to debate gay rights in Kenya in a civilised manner.

What is comforting is that the voices of Mtwapa are not the only voices being heard on this issue in Kenya. Two significant voices stand out in the recent past.

Citizen TV has been running programmes on sexuality and human rights. Discussions on gay rights, though polarised, have shown that the issue is neither a taboo nor controversial.

Kenyans have called in to give their divergent views. Theologians, lawyers, journalists, historians, anthropologists, scientists and sociologists have added their voices to the debate.

Nobody has questioned this manifestation of press freedom. We must build on this gain as we discuss other issues that are important to us.

Professor Makau Mutua, the brilliant Kenyan lawyer who is a distinguished professor at the Buffalo School of Law in New York, was in town this week. He gave a great public lecture entitled Sexual Orientation and Human Rights: Homophobia on Trial.

Prof Mutua made many persuasive arguments on the issue of gay rights. I point out the ones that are foundational.

He argued that the Kenyan Constitution and, indeed, the constitutional draft now being debated, protect the sexual orientation of heterosexuality and refuse to extend this protection to other sexual orientations.

Human rights activists, he suggested, should be bound by the normative obligation not to be selective in their protection and promotion of rights of all people.

Prof Mutua found the origins of homophobia from various sources, significant among them religious dogma.

He dismissed the often repeated notion that homosexuality is not African and urged the Committee of Experts not listen to what is popular, but defend the powerless from the powerful and the majority.

This is as good an opportunity as any for me to add my voice to this discussion. My relative is gay, but he will always be my relative.

His sexual orientation does not stop me from loving him. I will defend his rights against discrimination and threats to his personal safety and security.

I believe like all Kenyans he should enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement. He should enjoy the right to organise, the right to work, the right to education and the right to health.

I am horrified that some of us think that he merits death because of his sexual orientation. I am not least bothered by other members of family not supporting my position.

I have managed to floor their theological, legal, moral and cultural arguments. I believe in loyalty and protection of family members. My relative’s sexual orientation cannot be the cause of poverty in my family.

Some of my relatives have not refused his money on account of being gay! They have always applauded his humanity. We need to look for values in people and not their sexual orientation.

Next door in Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is being debated by Parliament. In a nutshell, if that Bill becomes law, nobody will be safe in Uganda.

It is a political diversion that may hoodwink Ugandans in not discussing President Museveni’s continued stay in power.

Critical issues about Ugandan resources, livelihoods, rights, corruption, security, unemployment and political participation will become no issues because fundamentalist religious norms take over.

In the Kenyan case, sexual orientation could be added to the other all too familiar divisive issues.

There is an embryonic gay movement in Kenya. Coming out notwithstanding, its danger is a signal of struggling for ones rights. Human rights activists three decades ago made the same stand.

They came out to demand the protection and promotion of human rights when the words themselves were subversive.

The first human rights defenders in this country were jailed, exiled and murdered. Sacrifices must be made for the rights of all to become a reality.

For the gay movement, an important lesson should be that it is a movement in a world of movements. The gay movement must march with other movements for progressive change in Kenya.