Homosexuality in Kenya continues to be a controversial issue, but gay rights advocates continue their advocacy for equality and tolerance. The most vigorous organization is Gays and Lesbians Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) founded in 2004 which leads the struggle for gay Kenyans everywhere.
Evolution of LGBT Rights and Spaces since 2008
This report was composed by David Kuria (photo right), former longtime director of GALCK. Last year he resigned from that position to run for public office in the Kenyan senate. His first bid was unsuccessful, not surprising since he was the first openly gay person ever to run for parliament in Kenya. He is currently campaigning for office once again, hoping for victory in the March 2013 election. (Financial donations for his campaign are welcome.)
The Gay and Lesbian Coalition – GALCK – in their website say LGBT spaces and groups have expanded exponentially since 2008.
GALCK is an umbrella organization bringing together a membership of six organizations including, ISHTAR MSM, Gay Kenya, Minority Women in Action, Transgender Education and Advocacy, Afra Kenya and PEMA Kenya. The latter is based in Mombasa – the Kenyan coastal town. Thus of the original nine members only three remain to-date. Yet, GALCK has existing memoranda with Tamba Pwani – a Malindi based group, LESBOS a Nairobi University LGBT students’ group and Q-initiative whose membership largely draws from alumni of Moi University in Eldoret.
Other organizations working with GALCK include, Upper Rift Minorities an LGBT group catering for the needs of pastoralist communities in Kenya, and MPEG a group based in Thika. Kisumu a Western Kenyan town also brings on board a number of groups under a regional umbrella body known as NYAWEK.
GALCK also works closely with “The Other Sheep Kenya” and NEEMA MCC Church, which cater for the spiritual needs of the Kenyan LGBT community as well as challenging the religious fraternity into being more accepting and loving.
The Advocacy Spaces
Galck started her formal existence with the official opening of the GALCK offices and drop-in centre in August of 2008. This official opening was attended by many dignitaries who included diplomats, leading Human rights activists and even the current Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga. Dr. Willy Mutunga was at the time working with Ford Foundation East African Office. With funding from Norwegian Development organization – NORAD, GALCK was able for the first time in Kenyans LGBT advocacy history to have an office operating full time and with paid staff. While funding came through in March of 2008, the office did not open until after August 2008. Initially this was because of the effects of post-election violence, but also because there were few landlords willing to rent out their premises to a gay organization.
During the search for the office, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya leadership had decided that they would not hide the real identity of the group, or the fact that they would be working towards legal reform and social acceptance. As luck would have the post-election violence had bitterly affected the property market and those in the industrial area of Nairobi were most affected, which is how the offices came to be located in its current place.
No sooner had the office opened than the LGBT community began making demands on the organization beyond legal reform, which is what envisaged originally. Indeed the staff of 4 almost felt overwhelmed by the community expectations. The staff had expected to immediately begin working on legal reform; yet the issues they found themselves addressing most of the time had to do with blackmail, extortion, false imprisonment often by off-duty policemen hoping to attract a quick bribe.
Other cases had to do with LGBT person who had been denied health services because the care providers learned of their sexual orientation. In one such many cases, a group of lesbians had gone to a routine cervical examination – pap smear, and when the clinician learnt that they were lesbians she not only refused to provide the service to the remain group, but also decided to call other nurses in the clinic to see ‘lesbians!’ Cases of clinicians calling others to witness the ‘scene’ of real gays or lesbians continue to be reported to this day from all parts of the country.
It also happened that at the time National Aids Control Council – NACC, was reviewing its National AIDS Strategic plan. Although the earlier plan was expected to expire in 2010, research had provided evidence that MSM activity was an important HIV transmission mode in Kenya contributing to about 15.2% of the overall national incidence. Other important drivers were casual heterosexual sex – 20.3%, and heterosexuals in marital or regular relationships – 44.1%. Formerly the focus of the plan had been on sex and migrant workers.
The review provided then an opportunity for GALCK and activists to become more involved in the process. There had been limited and often isolated attempts to reach out to gay men in Kenya in provision of HIV services. In one of the first meetings the activists were called “attention seekers” and largely ignored. With time however, they became the most consistent group in the strategic planning meetings and even helped in some instances to provide continuity and memory of sector planning committees.
This process was to culminate in GALCK’s name being listed as one of the partner organizations to help and support the government in the implementation of the strategic plan. Other groups such as ISHTAR MSM, – a founder member of the coalition are now involved in the NACC and CCM processes at National level. Other LGBT groups are likewise, now, involved at regional levels with HIV/AIDS services at their levels.
Universal Periodic Review
In 2010, Kenya was also going through the United Nations Human Rights peer review mechanism, known as Universal Period Review – UPR process. This process happened to be spearheaded by an Equality and Non-discrimination Human Rights Giant, known as Lawrence Mute. Mr. Lawrence Mute works as a Commissioner with the Government National Commission on Human Rights – KNCHR. Commissioner Mute invited GALCK and member organizations to form the sexual and gender minorities cluster within the broader National process.
This invitation was particularly helpful in mainstreaming GALCK within the broader National Human Rights fraternity. This was also a very engaging process that took place over a period of a number of months and almost up to four meetings a month. LGBT participants never took this invitation lightly and were present in all the meetings.
The outcome of this participation was the Government of Kenya being questioned during the UPR process on its stand on sexual minorities. For the first time we had an official response from the government on its position on LGBT Kenyans. Though the government said it does not discriminate against against sexual and gender minorities, it also said it would not move to remove laws that criminalize same-sex sexual conduct because it is against African culture.
While the government response was not ground-breaking or indeed any different from other African countries, including some of the most homophobic such as Uganda, it did provide a basis from which we could begin engaging with it.
Since the government said, that it does not discriminate against LGBT persons, activists and allies have now been producing reports to demonstrate how the laws and policies perpetrate a regime of discrimination and exclusion. One such report, produced by a supportive mainstream Human Rights organization – is the.”Outlawed Amongst Us”.
Activists hope that by documenting cases of active discrimination, they will have a mounting body of evidence on the continued discrimination and exclusion they experience. They also hope to use this while pursuing legal option in the decriminalization process.
Supportive Mainstream Organizations
During the early days of activism, the only mainstream organization that was working with GALCK was Liverpool VCT – LVCT. The LVCT had been the first HIV/AIDS service organization in Kenya to work with the MSM. Since it was based in Nairobi, it was a natural ally of the nascent LGBT movement. They however made it clear that their interest with the LGBT movement was only in the public health area. This position constantly put them at odds with the LGBT leadership, which wondered how one could successfully divorce the public health imperative from the human rights, even when the latter was largely responsible for the vulnerability that the MSM faced.
The recent global report on law and HIV, validates this position, just like an earlier report by Gay Kenya. The difficulties that the current GALCK leadership faced with LVCT, underscored the need to broaden support from other mainstream organizations. Indeed during the UPR process, many Human Rights organizations not only got to know of GALCK, but a few of them took keen interest in pursuing partnerships.
One such organization was the Kenya Human Rights Commission – KHRC, which was among the first mainstream human rights an organization to reach out to GALCK. They were particularly keen in providing capacity support to the movement. At first they created an internship position, where GALCK members could go and work for a period of six months within KHRC offices.
The objective was both to provide capacity building support to our members but also create ease of reach to the various human rights support structures with KHRC – e.g., during the numerous cases of arrests, KHRC staff could accompany our members to the police stations. This helped a great deal because the commission is a nationally respected organization. This internship position has since been upgraded to a full Equality and Non-discrimination program officer position.
Other mainstream organizations that have since come on board include, the International Commission of Jurists – Kenya Chapter, AIDS Law project and the Release Political Prisoners – RPP. The latter is actually very interesting because there have been no formal arrangements seeking their support. Indeed the only way that people knew of their LGBT rights supportive agenda is when the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights – KNHRC issued a report calling for decriminalization of homosexuality in Kenya.
This report was ground breaking on several levels. Firstly because it was made by a government body charged with advisory and oversight responsibility to the government on Human Rights. Secondly because it was the first time ever a systematically developed National Report had openly called for decriminalization. As expected the religious organizations moved to condemn the report. Unfortunately there were few supportive voices for the National Commission – one of this few voices came from Release Political Prisoners – RPP, which had never commented on LGBT rights before. It does therefore seem like there is a groundswell for mainstream organizations to enlarge their view of basic human rights as encompassing also the LGBT persons in Kenya.
The social spaces may have expanded in terms of the number of people they accommodate but have not increased in any dramatic way. This is rather surprising because one would expect an entrepreneurial spirit to precede legal change – sort of the de facto preceding the de jure. There have been a number of exclusive gay bars but have largely not been financially successful hence have had to close. There are however quite a number of “gay friendly spaces” in Nairobi and other towns around the country.
The most widely known of these is the Tacos Bar and Restaurant which is in the middle of town. While this is possibly the only place where gay and lesbian people are not afraid to self-identify, it has also had some of its lowest times. Indeed the best way to describe the relationship the community have with tacos is love-hate, which is characterized by moments when people can even kiss in public, but also times when the ownership gives directives for gays to be kicked out. Other public spaces include Gypsies Club in Westlands which is exclusivist and mainly caters for expatriate and income gay Kenyans.
On the whole the community members generally follow an “occupy and colonize” mentality. This normally happens to new joints in town or the suburbs, until they are discovered and kicked out. This also means that the “gay scene” is highly mobile. What may be the favourite place this year will not necessarily be the same next year. If one would therefore like to know where the scene is, the best way is to find out from the community members often through GALCK or the other members such as Gay Kenya, ISHTAR – all of which have websites.
Of course there are community drop-in centres in many of the towns in Kenya. GALCK has a community space and as does other other organizations in Kisumu, Mombasa and other towns. Other spaces have been provided by a number of house parties that continue to be organized almost on weekly basis.
For tourists and other visitors in Kenya, it is important to note that blackmail and extortion are still prevalent. Often however they are directed to isolated members of the community mostly married men who do not wish to associate themselves with the LGBT groups or communities. Visitors to Kenya are also very easy victims since they do not actually know that the law as it is requires one to be “found in the act.” It is also important to add, that the blackmailers often work with off-duty policemen (or women though there are no reported cases of policewomen being involved).
In terms of precaution – if you are caught up in one such situation, do get into contact with GALCK or any of the other registered groups. If your contact does not want you to contact any of the groups, then that should be one big red sign. If you were ever to be arrested, insist on being taken to the police station. The New Constitution says no one should be held be more than 24 hours before being presented in court and the court will surely grant you bail. It is highly unlikely that they will go through with this process, but if they did, then you would be helping GALCK and activists in Kenya build a legal precedence for advocacy.
Much of homophobia in Kenya like other parts of the countries in the continent has its root from the religious sector. Working with the religious leadership and rank and file is therefore very important to create safe spaces for the LGBT people. Activists from across the country have been reaching out to the religious leaders with varying degrees of success. Not only have they held a number of religious retreats providing for the spiritual needs of the community. There have also been attempts to reach to the highest members of the church leadership in Kenya.
PEMA Kenya has quite a number of programs focusing on the Muslim religious leadership, while in Nairobi, Other Sheep Kenya and MCC Neema church work with the Christian leaders. There have been attempts to reach out particular to the Anglican Church. Close to 5 Anglican bishops have met with Rev. Kimindu, himself a retired Anglican priest and army chaplain and in some cases supported the LGBT rights struggle although from the closet.
Recently when an Anglican bishop for Mombasa diocese said that gays are worse than terrorists, Rev Kimindu took him up on the comments. The bishop confessed he had never met a gay person in Kenya. So the Rev. Kimindu organized for a meeting in which up to 30 gay people were present.
The legal process has largely been characterised by GALCK and member groups organizing legal clinics for the LGBT persons to understand their rights within the current framework of the law. There has been however attempts to reform the law, through a structured process dubbed “Multi-tier Approach – MTA.” This hopes to bring on board many stakeholders in this process, including the religious, legal practitioners and the community towards a broad based legal reform process. Details of the MTA and how one can join in can be obtained from the Galck legal officer.
Expansion of LGBT Groups
The number of LGBT groups has been one of the most phenomenal successes for the movement. Almost every major town how has a group now, even though they may not be formally constituted. There are formal groups in Mombasa and Malindi in the coastal region, as there are numerous groups in the Western Kenya region – these are brought together through a regional Network known as NYAWEK. Nakuru, Eldoret and Lodwar have formal groups in Rift Valley province, while Central province has groups in Thika and Nyeri. Nairobi however remains as the one place with the highest concentration of groups which now number seven.
These groups can be contacted through the following websites: www.neemamcc.org, www.identitykenya.com and www.gaykenya.com. One can also get in contact with GALCK, for additional details on the different groups – both formal and informal in the different Kenya towns through tel: +254-20-242 60 60;;