Kenya’s openly gay David Kuria

If all you ever read about gay people in Africa is in the western media (including gay media), you would be forgiven for thinking it’s one endless horror story.

This year, we’ve had the anti-gay riot in the Kenyan town of Mtwapa, the arrest and subsequent pardoning of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi and, of course, the “gay executions” bill in Uganda.

Largely unnoticed amid all that has been the quickening development of gay communities and movements in many parts of Africa.

In Kenya, for instance, David Kuria – a gay man – is standing for the senate. If elected, he’ll be the second openly gay politician in Africa (the first is South Africa’s Ian Ollis). Kuria, who is director of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), is already well known to Kenyans from frequent TV appearances. His prominence has also resulted in him being targeted by American evangelicals.

Kuria’s candidacy for the senate is the latest development in GALCK’s “gradualist” strategy, which involves building alliances with civil society groups and talking with religious leaders. This showed its worth in the successful deflation of an anti-gay backlash following the February riot.

The strategy seems to be paying off. “We have to accept [gay] people the way they are and embrace them in the society,” the Kenyan special programmes minister Esther Murugi told an HIV/Aids conference last month. Her words ignited a storm but, despite various Christian and Muslim leaders calling for her head, she has refused to resign. Defending her, justice minister Mutula Kilonzo called discrimination in HIV/Aids services a “gross violation of human rights”.

Elsewhere – in Zambia and Malawi, for instance – governments are increasingly recognising that tackling HIV/Aids means recognising that gay people exist. The new visibility in Kenya was seen last month when gay people openly joined a march in Nairobi demanding improvements to the Kenyan health system. They were well received, says Kuria.

“Here in Britain, it is only relatively recently that we have moved from repression to acceptance…”

“Increasingly the movement is becoming mainstreamed as legitimate stakeholders in the civil society,” he added. “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.”

Here in Britain, it is only relatively recently that we have moved from repression to acceptance, and it took 38 years from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, through the Thatcher government’s Section 28, to arrive at civil partnerships 38 years later. Africa, now, is going through the same process we went through. Increased visibility = increased awareness = increased repression = eventual acceptance?

In Uganda, civil society groups and prominent figures including Bishop Christopher Senyonjo have rallied to defend LGBT rights in the face of a barely disguised genocidal push. In July, the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, called for the repeal of sodomy laws. In Cameroon, gay leader Steave Nemande says media coverage of homosexuality is fast improving.

In South Africa a few weeks ago a massive march in Soweto said no to the epidemic of “corrective rape” of lesbians. “Anti-gay mob violence remains a problem, but the post-apartheid ANC government has trailblazed,” Peter Tatchell says of South Africa. He describes the country’s legislative gains (which include gay marriage) as “a beacon for LGBT rights all across Africa”.

Pan-African movements like the Coalition of African Lesbians and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights are growing, and now an East African network is under formation. Kuria says: “We have numerous listserves and increasingly we are meeting at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.”

Tatchell points out: “The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – with its guarantees of universal equal treatment and non-discrimination – offers a legal framework for the securing of LGBT equality legislation.”

Cary Alan Johnson of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission describes the progress of African LGBT movements as astounding:

“Movements are more professionally run, politically smarter, more accountable and transparent, and more diverse. In almost every country, there are emerging organisations and political spaces for queer women, transpeople, those who want to be political, those whose interests are more social. Community centres and safe spaces are emerging continent-wide.

“In the face of much adversity and homophobia, it’s actually quite a heady moment.”

Originally published by The Guardian – Comment is Free – London – 10 October 2010.

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