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Sunday, 10 October 2010

History made as gay man stands for Kenyan Senate

By Paul Canning

Kenya could become the second African country* to have an elected out gay politician. David Kuria, the director of GALCK, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, is standing for the Kenyan Senate.

Kuria is already well-known to Kenyans from frequent TV appearances. His leadership has resulted in him being personally targeted by evangelicals using American funds in a nasty poster campaign.

He's standing in Kiambu, a mainly rural district to the north of Nairobi.

*(The first gay African politician is South Africa’s Ian Ollis.)

LAN: Why are you standing for the Senate?

DK: There are principally four reason why I decided to run for this position. The first reason is about service - all my life has been about service and in the past have done so in different capacities, including working in poverty alleviation programs. In politics today we have a few persons who are genuinely committed to public service, but on the whole a majority are just interested in either acquisition of wealth or for the most part protecting their wealth through government machinery. I hope to increase that small number genuinely engaged with solving the people's problems - which are many as you have read from my website

Secondly, I represent the LGBTI constituency in my present work. With the passing of the new consititution, a lot more of our rights including right to privacy, right of the arrested person and most especially an open ended non-discrimination clause (meaning there is potential for expansion of the protected grounds), a new dawn has broken. Yet before we can rise up and claim our rightful place in the society we need to be more visible, and more accepting of our sexual orientation and gender identity. It is hard for me as an activist to tell people to "come out" and be more visible by mere words, rather I can do so by taking up a most visible position of public scrutiny. I hope they will through this realize that the "storm of homophobia" is on the decline and the work that remains cannot be done while they are so deeply locked in their closets.

Thirdly, as a person who has known marginalization and exclusion all my life, I am hoping to use my experiences while in the position of public service to reach out and represent for the interests of those who are marginalized and excluded - some of them are people with mental and physical disabilities. I am reliably told also that our pschiatric hospitals can treat most of the people we ignore in the market places. Since this is a manageable condition I hope to focus on it immediately for people to see what change can come about to people's lives once we drop our shaded glasses of discrimination and stigma. Poverty among the youth is also endemic, yet most people in government because they are rich think of the youth as being lazy and irresponsible, especially when they engage in illicit alcohol, a problem that is endemic in the region I seek to represent. Yet I understand what they go through and will give it a public and national voice.

Lastly, I hope by running for this position I shall inspire all people to aspire to reach out to their dreams and potential irrespective of what their personal circumstances are. I hope for those who are LGBTI, who have different forms of disabilities, those whose low esteem continually voices a discouragment voice in their minds, who have been excluded because they are poor or come from a small and marginalized tribe. They can aspire to do that which everyone else thinks is impossible for them because of their personal conditions. Indeed I have characterised this candidature as a collective one for all who have been excluded and discriminated from the mainstream - and if you look critically, it is really everybody at one time or another. I cannot think of a bigger social stigma issue and one that automatically qualifies one for social exclusion in Kenya than being a member of the LGBTI community, and if I can do it so can everybody else.
LAN: How did Kenya get to the point where a gay man could consider this move?

DK: I do not think Kenya has changed very much. Yes we have recently enacted a new constitution that has a rather expanded Bill of Rights and has various mechanisms for redress when rights are violated, but it still does not mention sexual orientation or gender identity as protected grounds for non-discrimination. In fact many were of the view that if the draft had attempted to do that it would have been shot down.

But Kenya is also a land of many heroes and heroines - I have in mind Prof. Wangari Mathai who took one of the most authorian regiems in the region, the Moi Government, and even won some battles, though her work remains far from done. I also have in mind the pro-democracy activists, some of whom are in government and are even trying to turn back the wheels of history/democracy but they did take up a very powerful and viseral government and indeed many paid with their lives.

In a word, no pain, no gain. Our voice will never be heard if we do not stand up and speak it ourselves.

LAN: How do you think Kenya's gay movement's strategy differs from Western ones?

DK: The Western movement is informed by a culture that is highly sensitive of Human Rights and fairness - so it is easy for them call on the government and society's attention their discrimination by demonstrating how various laws unfairly treat them. If there is credible evidence that certain laws are discriminatory then the society and by extension the government then become involved in the process of changing these laws.

In Kenya, we discriminate between various populations deliberately because our tribal past essentially institutionalized that discrimination. In the not too distant past, there were only two tribes, ones own e.g., Kikuyu and the others who were also collectively known as "the enemy." It must come from the intertribal wars for land and livestock.  So demonstrating that a certain law is discriminatory and unfair does not bring about a moral indignation - if anything people say 'well no one is forcing you to be LGBTI'.

As a result we have had to resort to a strategy of co-option, where we identify our interests with govenment organizations that are ammenable to our cause e.g. the Health Ministry. This in turn has been very helpful because we have not only learnt how government works but also of the various inter-departmental struggles and we are using these to our advantage.

LAN: How do you perceive Western coverage of gay Africa?

DK: On the whole, Western coverage is very sensational and looking only at the negative side. Uganda, needed the focus it got because of the extreme nature of the bill. Then Kenya gets no mention in the international press even when we seem to be getting it right. The only time we got mention was during the homophobic attacks in Mtwapa, Mombasa, even then someone forgot to say that after the police would arrest the gay people the same police would release them to us each day - and it was not even easy for them since they had to tell the angry mobs that they have transferred the suspects from one station to the other. That element of cooperation was never highlighted.

In many ways my own candidature is quite a huge step for the gay rights movement in Africa but not much press is interested. Though I have to admit even locally many believe it is not a serious one.

LAN: How were gay people received on the recent march on health?

DK: We were very well received. Increasingly the LGBTI movement is becoming mainstreamed as legitimate stakeholders in the civil society. It is not uncommon to hear people now talk on the issues of sexual minorities in the same sentence with other minorities. This coming from people who only a couple of years even months ago would not have even listened to such issues. We had a big banner - just to be sure our presense was noted. We shall be participating in more and more of these mainstream events.

LAN: In Kenya who are your allies?

DK: Some of the mainstream human rights movement, some individuals in the government and those working in the area of HIV/AIDS.

LAN: What are your links with other LGBT people in Africa?

DK: We are closely tied through pan-African movements like Coalition of African Lesbians - CAL, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights - AMSHER, and now there is an East African network under formation. We also have numerous listserves and increasingly we are also meeting at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights - under African Union - hence we get to know each other quite a lot.


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