Kenya is one of many African countries that outlaw homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Although the country has a thriving civil society sector, including LGBTQI+ organisations that have been at the forefront of the cause for many years, social acceptance remains low, with enduring risks and vulnerability for people of the community. As we celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT) on 17 May, ARTICLE 19 calls on decision makers, the media, the public, business, religious leaders and local authorities to address the alarming situation LGBTQI+ people face. Not only must public officials step up, but there must be further support from the wider human rights sector and all allies.
The High court failed to appreciate the negative effects of keeping section 162 and 165 of the Penal Code, which ban same-sex conduct in the country, in place, and members of the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya continue to live in fear and in hiding. LGBTQI+ people are still subject to arrest, not only under these criminalising provisions, but also under laws criminalising ‘loitering’, ‘solicitation’, and ‘impersonation’, all regularly used by police to target them. And while women same-sex sexual activity is not explicitly prohibited by law, lesbians and bisexual women are not recognised and protected in the Kenyan Constitution, and are often discriminated against, with conversation therapies and ‘corrective rape’ being ongoing troubling issues. These threats to the person and life of LBTQ women are real and happen on a far too regular basis.
Trans people have historically suffered discrimination, and in Kenya there are no statutory provisions relating to transgender rights. If there have been some court rulings in favour of transgender rights, such as the right to change names appearing on legal documents, it remains unclear as to whether these rulings constitute substantive law on the issue of changing legal gender.
A lack of freedom of expression and a brutal murder
Moreover, there continues to be regular political public statements against the entire community, including the recent call to ban LGBTQI+ students from boarding schools. Public acceptance remains extremely low. Although acceptance is relatively widespread in some pockets of the country, this is mostly not the case across the country as a whole, where the community continues to face routine discrimination. The weight of religious and cultural beliefs remains extremely heavy. One of the results is that the freedom of expression of the LGBTQI+ community is severely restricted. The stares, whispers and regular open discrimination and violence, including from public authorities and law enforcement, makes it difficult for LGBTQI+ individuals to live openly and fully express who they are to Kenyan society.
In late April, Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba (known as Lumumba Sheila) was gang raped by six men and later brutally killed in Karatina Town in the Nairobi area. One of the reasons they were killed was because they identified as a non-binary lesbian. Their death – which, shockingly took place just days before the Lesbian Week of Visibity (25 April to 1 May) – is one of the many homophobic attacks that occured because of real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity. . And while relevant authorities are yet to make a public statement over this tragic murder, their silence runs the risk of sending a message of tolerance for such abuse and highlights the government’s ongoing failure to protect all LGBTQI+ individuald in the country.
So where do we go from here? As civil society activists, how do we ensure that Kenya moves in the direction of more inclusion and tolerance in coming years? Kenya has thriving civil society organisations fighting for the rights of LGBTQI+ people, which have been working on key issues for years, including on overturning the law banning same-sex conduct in the country and working with religious communities to promote acceptance. Yet there remains a real fragmentation within the human rights space, at the local and international levels, with a lack of bridges between LGBTQI+ organizations and others. The mainstreaming of LGBTQI+ issues within CSOs’ work and programmes, including in women’s rights organisations, would enable deep integration within Kenyan society (and throughout the world). If they spoke openly and publicly in favor of LGBTQI+ rights, this would undoubtedly help promote further acceptance in communities and societies at large. The way to further acceptance and tolerance is undoubtedly through CSOs building more bridges between themselves and for allies to become even more public about their support.
Crucially, allyship needs to be more intentional and not just a reaction to events: it must be seen, heard and felt at all times – and not just as a hashtag trend. Campaigns and programs should be designed to intentionally include all, right from the planning stages and not when the agenda has already been set. A shift in programming by civil society and other allies will not only ensure that there is increased acceptance but also build a formidable front against discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Historically, allyship has been a great tool of social change. Supporters from civil society and beyond, and especially those who hold privileged identities and positions, have played a pivotal role in campaigns against human rights violation of underprivileged communities.
As we continue to advance for social change there is a need for more transformational allyship.