A leading Kenyan LGBT rights activist told the Washington Blade during a recent interview he feels his fellow advocates can learn a lot from their U.S. counterparts.
“They own their agenda and they drive it,” said Eric Gitari, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission of Kenya. “I want to draw lessons on how we can get more people to own this equality agenda.”
Gitari spoke with the Blade after he appeared on a panel with Pastor Joseph Tolton of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries at Global Rights in Northwest D.C. on Oct. 11. The activist also visited the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch and spoke at the Howard University School of Law and Columbia University in New York before he left the U.S.
Kenya’s colonial government in 1897 adopted India’s penal code that included the criminalization of same-sex sexual relations.
Those convicted under the law could face up to 14 years in prison, but Gitari noted there has never been what he described as “a successful prosecution” under it. He said during the panel that a coalition of groups that hope to repeal the pre-independence statute hope to implement a strategy similar to that used by those who challenged India’s sodomy law – judges on the Delhi High Court in 2009 found the country’s colonial-era statute unconstitutional.
“They are using parallels from the New Delhi case in India to engage their strategies,” Gitari said.
Gitari also noted homophobia, transphobia and anti-LGBT discrimination and violence remain pervasive in Kenya in spite of a new constitution the country adopted in 2010 that acknowledges human rights, equality and other universal values.
He said “ex-gay” programs remain common in Kenyan schools, and students as early as fifth grade are taught homosexuality is a “social deviance” that is comparable to drug activity and criminality. Gitari further noted a 2012 secondary education certification exam asked high school students to give 10 reasons why Kenyan Christians are “united against homosexuals.”
“This law is informing a lot of public policy positions and attitudes,” he said.
A mob in Mtwapa near the coastal city of Mombasa in 2010 doused four gay men whom they thought were about to attend a same-sex wedding with kerosene.
“This was instigated by religious leaders; religious leaders to the present walk scot free,” Gitari said. “[They] have never, ever been investigated in spite of efforts to push for such an investigation for such hate crimes.”
Kenya is among the 76 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain illegal. Sudan, Mauritania and a handful of other nations continue to impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of homosexuality.
Lawmakers in Uganda, which borders Kenya, have faced widespread criticism over a bill Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced in 2009 that sought to execute those convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts.
President Obama in June spoke out against the criminalization of homosexuality during a press conference in Senegal, which is among the 38 African countries in which consensual same-sex sexual activity remains illegal.
Gitari noted the majority of Kenyans respect Obama because the president’s father was born in the country, but they criticized him over the comments he made while in Senegal.
“There were attempts by people, by propaganda machines within the conservatives to rob him of his African identity,” Gitari said. “They see Obama as a player in the spreading of that Western agenda of homosexuality.”
Advocates look to courts to expand LGBT rights
Gitari and his group hope to use the courts to gain legal protections for LGBT Kenyans that include the eventual repeal of the country’s sodomy law.
A three-judge panel on the High Court of Kenya in 2010 refused to legally recognize Richard Muasya, an intersex person who suffered abuse inside a maximum security prison. Muasya received 500,000 Kenyan shillings (or nearly $5,900) for the mistreatment inside the facility, but the judges said they found no evidence of anti-LGBT discrimination and human rights violations in the country.
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission in 2011 published a report that documented anti-LGBT discrimination. The Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights the following year released a second report that found widespread anti-LGBT discrimination in the country’s health care system.
The High Court of Kenya in June ruled in favor of a transgender woman who claimed police officers in a town outside of Nairobi, the country’s capital, stripped her naked in front of local reporters to determine her gender after they arrested her for assault in 2011. She also accused the officers of groping her breasts during the incident.
Gitari’s group also continues to seek formal recognition in the country.
“Our roadmap is informed by incremental litigation,” Gitari said.
Gitari traveled to D.C. less than a month after members of the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabab killed more than 60 people at a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
The East Africa Center for Law and Justice, which the American Center for Law and Justice that anti-gay televangelist Pat Robertson founded in 1990, is among the groups that continue to pose significant barriers to LGBT-specific advances in Kenya. In spite of this resistance, Gitari told the Blade he has not seen any homophobic rhetoric as a result of last month’s attack.
“The good thing that has emerged from it is that Kenyans are beginning to see that teaching extremism and using religion to justify hatred is no longer the way,” Gitari said. “It’s costing innocent lives and it’s not rational in a civilized world anymore.”