Gay rights activists in Kenya protest Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill.
BY JACOB KUSHNER / GlobalPost
An increasingly supportive church and other signs suggest Kenya may be departing from its neighbors in the region by accepting homosexuality.
NAIROBI, Kenya — For years, homosexuality was as unlawful in Kenya as it was in neighboring Uganda or in Nigeria — countries where anti-gay sentiment is growing.
Kenya’s penal code prescribes up to 14 years in prison for men who commit “acts of gross indecency” with other men or for any person who acts “against the order of nature.” It’s the same maximum sentence that existed in Nigeria, and seven years greater than what was until recently the maximum punishment in Uganda.
Uganda’s parliament passed a law making “aggravated homosexuality” a crime punishable by life imprisonment. The Ugandan president said on Friday that he plans to sign the bill. President Obama on Sunday condemned the move, and warned “such discrimination could harm its relationship with the United States.”
In January, Nigeria’s president signed a law that also orders that homosexuals be imprisoned for life and even makes gatherings of homosexuals illegal, including those held by advocacy or rights organizations. The law has already led to numerous arrests.
But in Kenya no such attempt has been made to reduce legal protections for gays, and many Kenyans seem increasingly willing to accept homosexuality as a fact of life, or to move beyond political posturing over the subject altogether.
A public discussion of homosexuality surfaced here last month following a Twitter argument between an anti-gay publisher of a prominent law and business journal and a Nairobi professor who defends gay rights. In response to the debate, renowned Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina made headlines when he came out publicly by publishing a short story entitled, "I am a homosexual, mum."
“In Nairobi, Binyavanga is walking around very freely and casually, almost like a hero,” said Tom Odhiambo, a Professor of Literature at the University of Nairobi and editor of a new collection of stories by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Kenyans. “He could not do that in Lagos (Nigeria).”
Last week, a group of gay rights activists released a new book, which brings accounts by gay Kenyans into the public sphere, on the premise that the time is now opportune for Kenyan society to accept homosexuality. Some 250 people crowded into a German cultural institute in Nairobi to launch Invisible: Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community.
“What this book means for me as a gay Kenyan man is that it brings out the invisible,” said one man who attended the book launch. “I can talk about being a gay man, but there are people who cannot talk about their gayness because they can face serious challenges for that.”
Kevin Mwachiro, the journalist and gay rights activist who edited the book, said the success of a gay film festival held here in 2011 and a high turnout at the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, where homosexuality was discussed, “showed that the space was ripe” for such a book.
“We still have a bloated human rights record, and we still do not treat our women very well. But that five, six percent GDP growth is nothing if people still don’t have the freedom to be themselves,” “Mwachiro said. “Africa is changing. Africa is ripe.”
A standout on a continent that widely views homosexuality as ‘un-African
Africa and the Middle East remain the world’s most LGBT-adverse regions, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center.
Though rarely enforced, the legal punishment for acts of homosexuality in three African countries is death. Homosexuality remains a crime in 38 African nations and “Homophobic attacks and harassment across sub-Saharan Africa are becoming more visible,” according to a report last year by Amnesty International.
The most prominent of these attacks occurred in 2010 in Uganda, which borders Kenya to the west. Two documentary films recently captured how Evangelical Christians from the United States and elsewhere are inspiring anti-gay fervor in Uganda.
“The evangelicals from the West know that that is their window, and they’re using that to promote their anti-homosexual agenda,” said Reverend John Makokha, director of a Kenyan gay rights alliance.
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