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Gay bashing the new national pasttime in Kenya

George Kibe | September 17, 2003

NAIROBI — When people use the term "gay bashing", they are often referring to gay people being physically attacked by bigots and the like. But as any counsellor will tell you, physical attack is not the only way to cause hurt. Well-aimed and badly intentioned words can be just as vicious as a fist or a kick in the ribs.

The new national game in Kenya is not soccer, or cricket or even rugby, it is Gay Bashing. Gays were never exactly popular in Kenya to begin with, but apart from the occasional swipe at gays from the odd politician, including former President Moi and the odd clergyman and writer of letters to the editor, one might say that Gays were generally ignored if not quite tolerated by the greater public.

The controversy over the ordination of a Gay Bishop by the Episcopalian Church (American Anglicans) in the USA and a section of the Kenyan draft constitution that proposes to decriminalize gay sex, have spurred on the Kenyan bigots and they have launched a vilification campaign, mainly in the press.

To be sure, the campaign does not yet seem coordinated as such, but it is loud, prominent and as these things go, woefully (if not quite deliberately) misinformed. It is being led by all the mainstream Christian religious groupings such as the Catholics, the Anglicans, and the Methodists with support from homegrown right-wing Christian evangelical groups. Significantly there does not seem to have been any reported condemnations of the gay community from the Muslim leaders or smaller religious faiths such as the Hindu's and the Jews.

Sadly, it would seem that either, nobody is speaking up in defence of the gay community, or that any efforts to do so, such as letters to the editor and pro-gay newspaper articles, are being suppressed by the mainstream media which is generally homophobic in the main. (The writer has worked in the Kenyan media for nearly two decades) In a country full of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) that claim to have a human rights agenda, not one of the groups has come out in defence of gay rights. Local chapters of groups such as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurors and our own homegrown Kenya Human Rights Committee have elected to bury their heads in the sand over the issue. Normally such groups are fighting each other to be in the front-line when other minority groups are attacked or when "mainstream" rights are concerned.

For fear of exposure that could lead to job loss and social rejection, the majority of Kenyan gay men and women are afraid of raising their heads above the parapet and so during situations such as these they tend to grumble amongst themselves but do nothing in the way of challenging society or trying to give a positive account of themselves.

Most of the media is only interested in either condemning gays using tired and discredited biblical quotes or ridiculing the community as freaks of nature. Even the few seemingly positive stories on gays and lesbians that have appeared in newspapers such as the Daily Nation, have tended to suggest that the community can only be tolerated if it keeps itself out of the limelight and does not do anything so bold as to even dream of achieving any rights.

The forces of Law and Order have tended to go along with this view and so even though Kenyan law forbids gay sex (calling it an offence against the order of nature) there has been no real evidence of police harassment of the community. No harassment, that is, apart from the odd bent cop (no pun intended), who hooks-up with a male prostitute to fleece a hapless gay tourist or even a resident who has paid (or sometimes not paid) for sex with a hustler who then tries to get their money via extortion.

This, and a general Kenyan passivity, is what has led many thinking gay and lesbian Kenyans to prefer to keep their heads down during a crisis such as the current one and hope that once the storm is over, life can get back to normal until the next time.

However, there are pockets of resistance to this passivity by way of little informal groups and associations of gays and lesbians that are slowly but surely girding their loins to shake the whole community and the system out of complacency.

Recently a few members of three autonomous groups of gay men, the women seem not to feature, met up for an exploratory discussion of what each does for the community and what, if any plans they had for the future. Though none of the groups can be said to have a particularly radical agenda, the fact of the meeting was an eye-opener in a number of ways.

The three groups were Galebitra (the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered association of Kenya) Ishtar (named for a character from the 1990s Kenyan production of a play about Cleopatra) and TOMIK (The Other Man In Kenya).

It was discovered that all three had, ignorant of the existence of the others, made some sort of presentation to the constitutional review committee that toured the country last year. Galebitra, made their contributions as part of a general human rights component in the proposed law; Ishtar had actually attended one of the committee's sessions and made a verbal presentation, and TOMIK, used well-placed personal contacts to get it's point across to the commission, providing them with a draft gay rights law proposal. (The writer is a member of TOMIK).

There is no evidence yet that this approach has been successful, but when the review process ends later this year, if the "pro-gay" clauses are left in the draft constitution, then this somewhat surreptitious campaign may be judged to have been a success.

Watch this space! –Behind The Mask

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The price of being gay in Somalia
A peek into the Ghanaian closet
Malawi: Churches condemn condoms in prisons
Kenya: lesbians fight invisibility
African lesbians meet at Sex & Secrecy conference
Egypt limits powers of homophobic emergency courts



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