Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Kenya’s gay community wants out of the closet

Charles Ngengi and Daniel Chege Gichia, the first Kenyan gay couple wedded in October in London, sending shock waves throughout Kenya.

Source: East African Focus

By Silas Nyanchwani.

NAIROBI, Kenya- The London gay wedding by Kenyan men was arguably the most controversial social issue in Kenya last year. Charles Ngengi and Daniel Chege Gichia, pulled a first one in October sending shock waves throughout Kenya. There was outright and widespread condemnation of their marriage, which kept the media busy for the latter half of  October.

The Committee of Experts (CoE) on Constitutional Review, refused to recognize homosexuals, against suggestions from a section of British MPs, patently citing that Kenyans would vote against the document during the referendum.

The London marriage was landmark among the gay community who saw it as a big step towards recognition of their rights. “Although, they have wedded in London, it is a step forward and it won’t be long before Kenyans stop thinking it irrational and unfounded,” says one fiery gay who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

A cursory glance will reveal that the gay community in Kenya is now an audacious lot. What with the vibrant movement- Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya ( that has even forwarded its views on the Constitution, to the CoE. There is Ishtar-MSM, an organization that deals with the sexual problems of gay men, and  it have quite a following judging from its  web site.

The organization has a church in an exclusive suburb in Nairobi’s Westlands and quite a considerable congregation. Queer nights are routinely held, but they are disguised as ‘theme nights’ exclusively for invited guests. In the recent past, the possibility of a man being hit on by a man, especially in swankier joints was high. Women too have not been spared.

Natasha Gachanja, an undergraduate student  at the University of Nairobi, says she has been a target for lesbians a number of times. “At least thrice, three different women have made suggestive moves to me, but I’m completely straight. They nudge me to consider going gay,” she says, blaming it on the type of friends she keeps, and the places she hangs out.

Dan Mwendwa, 23, never envisaged a man hitting on him, but it happened recently, and the experience left him totally shocked. “He approached me at a lone table and offered to buy me a drink,” he explains. “At first he was kind, generous and friendly, before he confessed that he was gay and attracted to me. I immediately left the table and walked out of that club, never to visit it again.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Many Kenyans say they have been approached by members of the same sex. Some of the incidences have turned violent, especially in Hurlingham area.

This is a far cry from the days when homosexuals were locked in the closet, and their identity, their best kept secret. Despite their clamour for recognition, homosexuals in Kenya are duly aware of the challenges they face. In a continent where heads of State have openly denounced homosexuality; and religious leaders are irrationally opposed to the gay community, they sure have along way to go.

Former President Daniel Moi reckoned that homosexuality is unchristian and ‘Unafrican’. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has been more vociferous and venomous; much to the chagrin of human rights activists. He once said that homosexuals are lower than dogs and pigs, provoking international outcry. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni routinely threatens to beat them and lock them up, not to mention the draconian bill, which could see homosexuals punished with death, currently being tabled in the Ugandan Parliament.

Despite the opposition, Kenyan gay are convinced that they can now come out. A 26-year old gay man, who only gave his name as Larry, cannot hide his disgust for people opposed to homosexuals. “There is an assumption that homosexuality is acquired, which is not true. Human sexuality is complex. Just like there is no proof why people are heterosexual, there is no proof why others are bisexual or homosexual,” he says.

In Africa, homosexuality is usually perceived as a pernicious import from the West. This is not necessarily true, as various studies have proven otherwise. If anything, a number of African languages have words for it; indicating that its existence predates our interaction with the West, even as it is argued that whether it existed or not, it was unacceptable.

One irrefutable fact is that, the movement towards broad approval of homosexuality is now practically inevitable. Closer home, South Africa became the first African country to legalize same-sex marriages two years ago. Locally, individuals are vituperatively opposed to their acceptance.

Patrick Bundi, 32, a marketing manager for a leading corporate brand thinks that homosexuals have a long way to go. “It is unacceptable by African standards, and we shouldn’t even be discussing it. Legalization of same-sex marriage cannot happen in our lifetime in this country,” Bundi says with a palpably indignant face. “South Africa has only been able to legalize it because it is a multi-racial community; and even gays are most likely to be dominantly white. In Kenya we are almost homogenously black, making it harder for them to present their case. We cannot even hold a public meeting to discuss it….Forget about the call in session on popular FM stations.”

The same attitude is shared by 34-year old Angela Manyasa, a businesswoman, who cannot befriend any gay individual. Asked if she can date a gay man, she quips, “What shall we be doing with him if he sleeps with other men?”

Michelle* in her late 20s, a master’s student in a private university in Kenya, claims that she has a “thing” for gay men. She dates them and goes out with them, she says. “They are understanding and sensitive, and know a thing or two about the ‘girly thing,” she enthuses.

A lesbian who only gave her name as Marie believes that it is no longer dangerous for gays to declare their sexual orientation. She wants people to be understanding and drop their irrational attitude every time a gay individual turns up. Those who hail from the Coast are relatively tolerant because it is common at the Coast, where even gay marriages are common place

But can they be accepted in a society determined to block any move by gay people to be recognized? Larry, a gay man, does not want recognition or acceptance rather; “acknowledging the fact that human rights are universal and indivisible and in this age and time, no one should be discriminated against because of their gender or sexual orientation.”

Homosexuality and religion

According to Pastor Japheth Ndhiwa of Nairobi Pentecostal Churche and author of  a newly published book, “Is Purity Possible?, “ the church is still conservative and treats homosexuality as a sin. Indeed the Bible is very unequivocal in its denunciation of homosexuality.

Ndhiwa  advocates for love rather than distancing ourselves from homosexuals.“By distancing ourselves, we have only made them to run away, and even form their own churches where they are comfortable. But the Bible teaches us about love. If homosexuality is a sin, so is premarital sex, abortion and many others, for in God’s eyes all sin is equal,” he explains.

His rather liberal views might be informed by the fact that he is a youth. Older religious leaders cannot even speak about it. They perpetually spurn it as satanic.

A deviation from cultural expectations

Khamati Shilabuka, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Institute of Anthropology, Gender & African Studies at the University of Nairobi, links this unremitting homophobia to the fact that homosexuality tends to go against cultural expectations.

“Men and women are cultural creations. Each society has a way men and women should behave. Any deviation is often met with opposition. When they start displaying habits assigned the other gender, people begin to get afraid of them,” he says.

“Many people are afraid of gay individuals because they don’t know how to deal with them, and fear they might be mistaken to be gay themselves. They also fear being inducted into homosexuality. Homosexuality is common among younger people because it is impressionable and fashionable. Older individuals were forced to lead highly private lives, owing to societal pressure; while young individuals can display their affection openly without raising eye brows,” he explains.

Why the new upsurge

Ken Ouko, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi, links the growth of homosexuality to increased universal tendency to outlaw infringement of individual human rights of association, assembly or expression. Repugnant and deviant behavior, thrives in modern society because of this understanding, he says.

Another possible reason, according to the don, is social permissiveness. “Modern society is evidently and definitely more permissive than traditional society. This implies that behaviour that was socially outlawed by the rigid traditional society will easily thrive in modern society,” Ouko says.

He also points out that gay behaviour is associated with the upper class and the progressive middle class, which makes it to enjoy the magnetism of economic attraction. Its deviant nature means it is well rewarded and those who indulge will spend anything to keep their indulgences under wraps, he says, adding that it is usually frowned upon because it is morally repugnant. “It assaults the imaginative faculty, and disturbs the equilibrium of dual cross-gender existence,” Ouko says.

It is in the genes

According to Psychologist and Sunday Nation Columnist Chris Hart, homosexuality is an extreme case of bisexuality, which is genetically based. Vast majority of gays are actually bisexual and frequently have intercourse with women, only 1 percent never do.

Homosexuality is inherited, more often from the mother than the father. “The environment has impact but basically homosexuals are born, and not made. Homosexual behaviour results from generic inheritance and not the societies we live in,” he says.


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