Ken, a Kenyan LGBT rights advocate who asked the Washington Blade not to use his real name because of concerns over his personal safety, was watching a newscast in the rural village where he lives in March when Parliamentarian Aden Duale said homosexuality poses the same threat to his country as terrorism.
Duale, who is the majority leader of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ruling political party, made the comments two months after Binyavanga Wainaina, a prominent Kenyan journalist and writer, came out as gay.
“Everyone in the field was cheering, ‘yes, that’s what should have been done,’” he told the Blade during a June 20 interview at the offices of American Jewish World Service in Northwest Washington. “I felt unsafe and was looking side-to-side.”
The incident underscores the acute challenges he and other LGBT rights advocates in the East African country continue to face.
His organization formally launched in 2009 amid ongoing tensions following election-related violence that left up to 1,500 people dead and more than 200,000 people homeless.
The group has more than 30 members who advocate for LGBT rights through access to education, health care and other services in rural Kenya. Ken’s organization also provides assistance to 94 gay refugees who have fled to the country from Uganda, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ken asked the Blade not to publish his organization’s name because of safety concerns.
“The greatest challenge we face in Kenya and Africa at large in advocating for LGBTI rights is changing people’s perceptions that gay issues are Western and they are all bad,” he said. “Every time you come up with a gay agenda, people are like, that thing’s Western. It’s not African.”
Ken met with LGBT rights advocates, lawmakers and officials from the State Department while in D.C. from June 18-21. He also went out to a club on U Street, N.W.
“People are so open,” said Ken. “The environment is very nice for activism. People can come there, have fun.”
He traveled to San Francisco and Los Angeles before marching with American Jewish World Service in the New York LGBT Pride parade on Sunday.
“They don’t have a hard time like what we have in Africa because they have support,” he told the Blade, discussing his American counterparts. “The environment is safe for their advocacy and activism.”
Kenyan textbooks list homosexuality among ‘sexual sins’
Ken, 28, told the Blade he first knew he was gay when he was in primary school.
“I just thought it was normal,” he said. “I just thought that’s how all boys in the community feel like.”
Ken said he only realized he was “different” in high school when a male classmate whom he found attractive rejected his advances.
He told the Blade that he began to learn about gays and lesbians from a friend who said they live in cities and larger towns. Ken said he encouraged him not to engage in homosexuality, which Kenyan textbooks compare to bestiality and other “sexual sins.”
“Schools were like missionaries,” said Ken, noting he began reading dictionaries to understand what homosexuality meant. “You could not expect to see a book in a school library without gay themes, lesbian themes.”
Ken’s father is a leader in his village, and he has yet to come out to him and his family. He told the Blade his friends would label him “a bad person” and “satanic” if they learned about his advocacy efforts.
“My father would lose that responsibility in that community,” said Ken. “Once he loses that there will definitely [be a] backlash on me. That will be taken as if I have betrayed him.”
Another consequence that Ken said activists who come out in rural Kenya could face is schools not accepting them “out of fear that you’ll come to recruit other students.” He told the Blade that those who do not want to get married are assumed to be gay.
Ken said a common practice in rural Kenya is to force a gay person to sleep next to an older woman overnight after she dies as a way to “cleanse” them of their homosexuality. He noted those who do not change are subjected to what he described as a more “serious” process.
“You are subjected to very, very rude cultural practices which are dehumanizing,” said Ken. “They cause a lot of stress.”
Students protest efforts to expel gay classmates
Kenya is among the nearly 80 countries in which homosexuality remains criminalized.
Parliamentarian Irungu Kang’ata and other Kenyan lawmakers in February formed a caucus the Voice of America said is designed to “combat homosexuality” in the country.
Kang’ata has sought to introduce a measure similar to the draconian Nigerian law banning, among other things, membership in LGBT advocacy groups that took effect in January. The proposal has yet to be introduced.
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission in 2011 published a report that documented anti-LGBT discrimination in the country. The Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights the following year released a second report that found widespread anti-LGBT discrimination in the East African nation’s health care system.
In spite of these challenges, Kenyan LGBT rights advocates in recent years have made some progress.
The High Court of Kenya last June ruled in favor of a transgender woman who claimed police officers in a town outside of Nairobi stripped her naked in front of local reporters to determine her gender. They also allegedly groped her breasts during the 2011 incident after she was arrested on an assault charge.
Ken’s organization has also worked with the American Jewish World Service to create what he described as a human rights club at a Roman Catholic school that is “notorious” for expelling students whom administrators suspect are gay.
He said students two months ago protested the principal’s decision to expel two of their fellow classmates because of their reported homosexuality. Ken told the Blade the students broke the school’s windows and burned a portion of the school.
Local police responded and the Kenyan government now wants to take over the school because of the protest.
The two students whom the principal wanted to expel remain enrolled.
“What they did was not good, but we feel that these students now realize that despite one being gay, he has a right to education,” said Ken.
Activist ‘grateful’ for Uganda travel ban
Ken spoke with the Blade the day after the White House announced travel bans against Ugandan officials responsible for anti-LGBT human rights abuses in the country.
The announcement is part of the Obama administration’s response to a law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed in February.
“We are very, very grateful,” Ken told the Blade, applauding the White House’s announcement. “We were waiting for that statement.”
He also urged Congress to back a bill that U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced earlier this month that would create a special envoy within the State Department who would coordinate Washington’s efforts to support LGBT rights abroad.
“That is the bill that will really open up Africa to be an open place,” said Ken.