Is the gay issue in Kenya political, religious or cultural?

This week we have another guest blogger writing for us on an interesting and controversial topia. Angela Kabiru is a researcher with the National Museums of Kenya. Her interests include archaeology, tourism and all things cultural.

Several weeks ago, the US Supreme Court made a ruling to legalize same-sex marriages. Just before President Obama’s planned trip to Kenya, protesters gathered in Nairobi in to protest against homosexuality. Vincent Kidala, the Republican Liberty Party leader told The Star that U.S. president would be insulting African values by mentioning gay rights during his visit. “Obama should know that gay rights are Western. When in Africa he should value our rights.” They warned President Obama to steer clear of gay marriage on his visit.

This got me thinking, how many things do we do here that are not ‘western’? Polygamy was allowed but the white man came and said it was wrong. We accepted that. They brought Christianity. We accepted it. Now 80% of Kenyans are said to be Christians. They came and said that female circumcision is bad for our girls. In fact, it was called mutilation. And we have largely made an effort to stop it, never mind what its original intentions were. And now we are saying that we do not want something else that is western? We surely have selective preferences.

In April, Kenya’s high court legalized a gay-rights organization for the first time. After the ruling William Ruto, Kenya’s deputy president, said in a speech that “we would not allow homosexuality in our nation, as it violates our religious and cultural beliefs.” There are two points here- is it a religious or is it a cultural problem?

Laura Carter, Amnesty International’s adviser on sexual orientation and gender identity points out that 34 out of 54 African nations currently criminalize homosexuality. A survey conducted by The Pew Research Center describes how intolerance for homosexuality tends to be more intense in communities where there are high levels of religious observance, and African nations stand out as some of the most observant in the world. Bishop Mark Kariuki of the Deliverance Church and chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya said of President Obama “We know he is an advocate of gay rights. When he comes here, we are asking him to respect the morals, the faith and the culture of Kenyans”. There it comes again- faith and culture.

What President Obama said was that he believes in treating people equally under the law, because we are all deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual preferences. And that he was not calling for a change in religious doctrine. “The state just has to say we’re going to treat everybody equally under the law.” And that is what the Bill of Rights in the Kenya Constitution states, that everybody has certain freedoms that should be respected, including freedom of association.

So we have three issues here: religion, constitution and culture.

  1. Unless it is mandatory for every Kenyan to belong to at least one religious group, religion this does not apply to all.
  2. If according to the Constitution all people should be treated equally regardless of religious and other associations, then we have no reason to treat then differently.
  3. I do not know what different cultures say about homosexuality and punishment for such offences. Did homosexuality even exist before the coming of Christianity? Because if it did not, then there is no cultural argument against homosexuality. And if it existed in certain communities, then it certainly does not apply to all Africans.

The truth is, there are many western habits or practices that we have picked up in the last 100 years. There are some good ones and there are bad ones. Alcoholism, prostitution and drug addiction. Sale of alcohol is allowed although alcoholism is a growing problem. Prostitution may not be legalized but we all know it is a thriving business. Drugs have destroyed the lives of many young people in this country. Homosexuals have no negative effect to the economy. Sexual preference is a private affair. Like choosing to get married or stay single. We do not discriminate against single or divorced women because everybody should be treated equally before the law. There are offences that were traditionally punishable by law, for instance, incest. Cases of incest have recently been on the increase, yet we have not seen any public demonstration against the practice

President Uhuru Kenyatta argued that Kenya has other priorities, listing heath, education and road development, along with greater representation of women in society. “This is why I repeatedly say that, for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue,” he said. “Maybe once, like you have overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones.” But I think he is wrong. These things do not happen in a certain order. And to say it is a non-issue is just avoiding addressing the matter because there clearly is a large group of people who see the need to have an association. We thought alcoholism was a non-issue until the problem got out of hand.

We cannot continue burying our heads in the sand, pretending things don’t happen and things don’t change. Culture is dynamic; people adopt new habits. We cannot continue saying something is un-African simply because we don’t like it. Like we have new roads and ports, we have embraced-KFC and Pizza Inn-and have no problem with that. But when it comes to our sexual preferences, it is a big issue. Uhuru said, “There are some things that we must admit we don’t share—our culture, our societies don’t accept. It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.” Which people do not accept what, and who is imposing what? Isn’t it the people asking for representation?

As Matt Schiavenza, writing for The Atlantic notes, Obama’s advocacy for gay rights in Kenya is likely to stir up colonial resentment in the country; it may just be the beginning of a necessary national conversation.

What is the cause of this homophobia in Africa?

Is the gay issue political, religious or cultural?

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