Being gay in Kenya

2006-02-22 14:28

Nairobi - Chinese stir-fry sizzles on the stove and lively conversation crackles between the three friends gathered round a table on a Tuesday night in Nairobi.

It's a run-of-the-mill dinner party but many Kenyans would say it is not a typical one.

"I'm not afraid, but I'm not going to tell someone, 'hey, I'm gay'," says Alex, 31, a marketing consultant.

Stirring coconut milk into rice cooking on a glass-topped stove, Alex, who comes from a conservative Muslim background, says there are not many places to meet gay people and talks excitedly about wanting to open a gays-only bar.

"There's no gay anything here," he says.

More like 'gay death'

"It's more like gay death, not gay life in Nairobi."

The three friends eating in the tiny kitchen are members of an unrecognised and stigmatised minority in Kenya. Keeping a low profile is their way of handling the isolation.

While debates in developed countries rage over same-sex marriage, in most African countries gays and lesbians suffer from more basic concerns - the right to choose how to live.

Homosexuality is outlawed in many African countries, including Kenya, and is often condemned as being "un-African" - a 'disease' imported from the West. In some traditional beliefs, homosexuals are said to be cursed or bewitched.

"Homosexuality is against African norms and traditions, even in religion it is considered a great sin," former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi once said.

"Kenya has no room for homosexuals and lesbians."

In Cameroon this month, tabloid papers published names and photos of allegedly gay politicians, businessmen and musicians in what editors said was a crusade against "deviant behaviour."

African bishops led by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola mutinied last year over the issue of gay Anglican clergymen.

Only South Africa, whose constitution was the world's first to enshrine equal rights for gays and lesbians, bucks the trend. In December, its top court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry, paving the way for it to become the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage.

Double lives

Though rarely enforced, punishment in Kenya for gay sex is five to 14 years in jail. Sex between women is not mentioned in the law.

The gay Kenyan men interviewed by Reuters asked to have their names changed, citing potential family and work problems.

"I don't want my parents to know something that will end up hurting them," Alex said.

Many in Kenya say they live closeted lives because they risk being disowned or fired if their family or bosses find out.

"People live double lives here. There's a life you live with your straight friends and the life you live as a gay person," says Jeremy, the co-ordinator for Galebitra, a local gay and lesbian rights organisation.

"We are vulnerable, we are neglected, and we don't have any visibility," he adds, speaking softly in the upstairs part of a hamburger bar in downtown Nairobi. Jeremy says he comes to the restaurant because it is more "gay-friendly."

Tall and lean, Jeremy slouches and says, almost whispering, "Without massive protest and gay people coming out, standing up for what they want, the government will continue disowning us."

He says if one country in East Africa opened up, it would clear the way for the surrounding countries to follow. "The situation you see in Kenya is the same for East Africa. If our country can open up, it'll be a big breakthrough," he said.

Homosexuality 'unAfrican'?

According to Behind the Mask, a South African-based gay and lesbian rights group, laws prohibiting homosexuality exist in most East African countries except for Eritrea and Rwanda, where there are no laws specifically banning homosexuality.

Punishments range from a few years in prison to death.

Last month in Nigeria, the government gave initial approval to a draft law which would ban homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The bill would make homosexual acts punishable with five years in prison and outlaw gay groups and rallies. It has yet to be approved by parliament.

On a continent with many Western missionaries and still-flourishing animist beliefs, religion plays a major role in shaping public opinion, especially in rural areas.

Around three-quarters of Kenyans are Christians. The Catholic Church and the Protestant churches in Kenya, including Anglicans, condemn homosexuality as sinful. In Islam, the Qur'an forbids homosexual acts.

A poll in Kenya last year showed that 96% of respondents viewed homosexuality as being against their beliefs.

Illustrating the social prejudices, opposing sides in Kenya's constitutional referendum last year accused each other of wanting to legalise homosexuality.

"Homosexuality is not an issue (the authorities) particularly want to get involved with," says Mwangi Githahu, a journalist with the influential Nation newspaper.

He said most Kenyans did not want to talk about homosexuality. "The law and everybody else pretend it's not happening, they just don't want to know," he added.

"There's this crazy idea out there that homosexuality is un-African. Where that came from, nobody really knows," he says.

Back in the restaurant, Jeremy argues that there are many different kinds of traditional family structures in Africa and asks why same-sex relationships cannot be part of that.

"There's a lot of talk about family values. In Africa, family unions are very important," he says.

"Emotional values are part of same-sex unions. We share the same family problems ... but if you don't talk about it then it becomes a silent killer."