An interview with the activist Mugambi Kiai, Kenya Program Manager, Eastern Africa Initiative, Open Society Foundations.
Q: The New Kenyan Constitution promulgated on August 27th, 2011– is there anything to celebrate for the gay community?
Yes, for at least two reasons. First, as Kenyans, the new Constitution promises a new governance architecture that should entrench greater respect for rights, improved accountability and more responsiveness from government. Second, although the new constitution is not perfect – under Article 45 (2), for instance, it limits the enjoyment of the right to marry to between opposite sexes – it presents the LGBTI community with fresh grounds to continue its struggle for recognition and space. Take the example of the National values and principles of governance under Article 10 that include human dignity, inclusiveness, equality, human rights and non-discrimination.
Right there, there is a firm basis one to argue against the violation of their dignity and on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. There is firm ground to contest for inclusion, non-discrimination and equality too. In addition, under Article 2 (6), there is provision to contesting for the recognition of the rights of the LGBTI community where these rights are part of any treaty or convention that Kenya has ratified. Moreover, under the Bill of Rights, there are provisions around equality and freedom from discrimination (Art. 27), Human Dignity (Art. 28) and Freedom and security of the person (Art. 29) that offer fresh impetus to the rights of the LGBTI community.
Q: In your own opinion, what are the fundamental Challenges facing the LGBTI community in Kenya?
Homophobia and lack of acceptance by Kenyans who are “straight” seems to be the key challenge for the LGBTI community. At one extreme, there is open, violent hostility and at the other there is the physical/psychological distancing from the LGBTI community where anyone who belongs is treated like an abomination. This is why the law is used to criminalize people on the basis of their sexuality. The fact that not only is the LGBTI community different but entitled to be different seems to elicit such incredible intolerance and this is where there needs to be significant contestation: to create a new way of thinking that embraces the LGBTI community as human, dignified – and “straight” too.
Q: Should de-criminalization be an agenda item with the Kenyan Human Rights Community?
There is an urgent need for the larger Kenyan human rights community to engage more robustly on LGBTI rights issues – including decriminalization. Much as they are a part of Kenyan society – and therefore share their prejudices and biases – the human rights community has to rise above these; they have to be a headlamp in the fog showing the way forward. This is not a matter of choice; it is one of rights and it cannot be that we are picking rights from a menu of preferences. A violation of one right is a violation of all rights.
Q: Are LGBTI Kenyans in a position to advocate around other rights issues and those often in public spheres?
It sure would be welcome to have the voice of the LGBTI community around issues of impunity, corruption, arbitrary violence, discrimination and so on. Given its entrenched nature, the governance psychosis in Kenya needs as many voices as possible to rally against its continuation. This would, however, mean a “coming out” of sorts – which could be dangerous due to the high levels of intolerance that abound. A strategy needs to be thought through to make sure that those from the LGBTI community who speak out on issues are also not exposed to risks/threats due to their sexuality.
Q: Is the Kenya Human Rights Community ready for collaboration with the LGBTI family?
Yes and no. I know of several strong leaders within the Kenya Human Rights Community who have boldly and steadfastly advocated for not only LFBTI rights but also collaboration with the LGBTI family. I also know of very strong homophobes among people working on human rights and governance issues. The challenge, then, is to continue pursuing the collaboration agenda with those who are friendly – at some point, those opposed will either have to either re-think their positions or be exposed for their double standards.