It Is Time: The need to rethink homosexuality in Kenya and Africa

“This is personal for me.” ~President Obama on his visit to Kenya.

The near rabid response surrounding the speculation that President Obama would address gay rights on his first visit to Kenya as a sitting U.S President seemed poised to dampen his trip. There was the planned nude protest that would show the President the difference between a man and a woman, called off mere days before his arrival. There had been the heavily homophobic sermons pouring out of pulpits on Sundays for weeks now, and the repeated reminders from political figures such as Kenya’s Deputy President, Mr. Ruto, that homosexuality was not African, and Kenya did not have “room for gays and those others.” Meanwhile, Kenyan media was rife with coverage of the topic, and on Twitter thousands of Kenyans using #KenyansMessageToObama had asked President Obama not to address gay rights during his trip.

When the long speculated moment did arrive at joint press conference at the State House in Nairobi, there was a timid exchange of opposing viewpoints between President Obama and Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta on the issue. President Obama tread around it, speaking to legal equality, drawing on US civil rights history and the resulting damage “when people are treated differently under the law.” President Kenyatta issued a rebuttal with the satisfied look of a school boy who had told off his headmaster, stating that gay rights are not “an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact.” Further “there are some things that we must admit we don’t share – our culture, our societies don’t accept.” He was greeted by applause from the Kenyan audience.

These proud proclamations of bigotry as a Kenyan way of being would be comical, except that they have real lived consequences for Kenyans like me. I am Kenyan, I am a lesbian, I am part of our culture, part of our society, and gay rights are at the forefront of my mind. In fact, gay rights never leave my mind; and the right to live, die or thrive that comes with them.

As I watched these two presidents – one fighting for my right to live and the other decrying my existence – I was reminded of a question I had been asked weeks ago. I was sitting in a room full of black women writers explaining the role of the queer African writer in speaking a community into existence, when one of the women had asked me how I felt about writing “from exile.” Exile? I had never contemplated that I was in exile, this being a word for political figures, heroes who have stood and fought for something. It is for the likes of famed Kenyans like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Koigi Wa Wamwere whose political thoughts were too ahead of their time, and far too dangerous. It is not for a writer who spends nights spinning letters from the diaspora into articles and essays and never sending them to a home she feels she no longer knows. Yet, the more I contemplated this word ‘exile’, tossing it around, tasting its corners against my mouth, I felt its truth rest upon me. It is true, I am in exile: a self imposed one, for fear that my country will not only reject me, but may harm me. Remarks, such as President Kenyatta’s only reinforce the fear.

As an out LGBTQ Kenyan, I am privileged enough to not have to live with the fear that comes with being gay in Kenya. A very real fear that is realized through harassment, violence, raids on social gatherings, disownment by family and friends, financial disenfranchisement, employment and housing discrimination, and coded laws that punish “homosexual relations.” I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional toll of being queer, let alone out, in an environment like that. Through a combination of pure luck and my mother’s determination to give us a better future, I am able to live a very gay life, freely in a state and country that not only supports my right to love, but guarantees me protection from hate. This country that is America, is not my own, this state that is Minnesota is not my home. But the exclusionary and discriminatory practices perpetrated in the name of culture, and religion that run rampant in Kenya, keep me, and others like me, in homes that are not ours.

The denial of a gay Kenyan existence (because it is not just about rights, it is instead a society’s attempt to deny the existence of an entire section of its population) is an affront to the Kenyan LGBTQ community, their talents, hopes and aspirations. There are many like me: educated, brilliant, creative, innovative minds with much to give and receive in a pluralistic society that is willing to see us as more than a sum of sexual acts. Instead, we find ourselves stifled by a culture that seems hinged on maintaining some of the worst parts of the colonial experience: oppression through religion, division through tribalism, and heavy handed political games in which innocent citizens pay the price. Kenya’s refusal to uphold human rights, whether in regards to sexual orientation, gender, nationality, or tribe, inevitably hinders our growth as a country and progress as a society.

Further, as Kenyans and Africans as a whole, it is time that we let go of this antiquated and thoroughly disputed notion of homosexuality as “Western.” Beyond the paradox of appealing to a Western religion, Christianity, to decry homosexuality, it is a mockery of our history. Colonialism necessitated the use of Christianity and the Bible to justify its actions in oppressing colonial subjects: us. That we now employ the same tools used against us in imperialistic conquests as a means to bury LGBTQ Kenyans and Africans, means that we have not yet learned from our history. It means that we have yet to recognize that this current view of homosexuality held in much of Africa is not of our creation; so it is not our responsibility to proudly clutch onto it, even while the rest of the world moves forward.

Much like we rejected the colonial experience, and the narrative of a white savior, it is time that we reject these views on sexuality that are not inherently ours. The appeal to the argument that homosexuality is Western also intends to maintain the notion of the “untainted African” in pre-colonial Africa, while ignoring the actuality that the exploration of sexuality has never been limited by geographical constraints; Kenya, and Africa, are no exception.

As LGBTQ Kenyans and Africans, we will continue to thrive; the indomitableness of the human spirit prevails. There is no burying us, whether with shame or violence, for we are here and have always been here. I am reminded of a Mexican proverb that goes, “They tried to bury us.They did not know we were seeds.” We are seeds, planting our roots firmly on this earth, intent on flourishing.

Kari Mugo

Kari is a queer writer, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and spending her formative years in the Midwest. She is a contributor for Mshale Newspaper and Matador Network.

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