Interviewed by Denis Nzioka, Prof. Makau Mutua, Dean in an American university, says ‘Matters of human rights and dignity are not a popularity contest. We must do what is right’. Prof. Makau Mutua is the Dean, SUNY Distinguished Professor , Floyd H. & Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar, The State University of NY, Buffalo Law School & Chair of the KHRC.
Q: You have been a vocal proponent for gay rights and have written much to defend gays. Where did this stem from?
I am a human rights thinker and advocate. It would be wrong for anybody who believes in human rights to choose to protect the rights of some human beings, and not others. I am guided by the theory of anti-subordination under which we have a normative obligation to oppose all tyranny and oppression. We shouldn’t, for example, oppose torture and support the oppression of women at the same time. This is would be logically inconsistent and theoretically indefensible. But like most Kenyans, I was raised in a homophobic world. Later in life, as I developed as an intellectual, I discovered that there was no rational or intellectually defensible reason to be homophobic. That’s how I overcame my own homophobia. I decided to write and speak up. I know my position on gays is unpopular with powerful interests in Kenya – and perhaps a majority of Kenyans. But matters of human rights and dignity are not a popularity contest. We must do what is right. But I believe the majority of Kenyans will come around to our point of view with time and education.
Q: The Constitution of Kenya, promulgated on August 2010 was welcomed and embraced by many Kenyans. One of the goodies is the Bill of Rights. Does the gay community too need to celebrate?
The new constitution is document of wonderment in many respects. The Bill of Rights is one of the most comprehensive and progressive in the world. The Constitution protects the rights of gays and lesbians in its each protection clauses. The provisions of the Penal Code that criminalize homosexuality are clearly unconstitutional, and I have no doubt that the courts will rule in favor of gay rights. Importantly, the Constitution doesn’t prohibit gay marriages or civil unions among gay people. I hope the courts will rule on this soon. It’s the international trend in any case, and it’s a matter of time before it becomes commonplace internationally. South Africa, on our own continent, allows gays marriages. We must follow suit.
Q: Compared to the gay community in the US, what are some of the similarities with the gay community here in Kenya in terms of advocating for their rights?
Gay communities the world over live under the pressure of tradition and stigma. In most countries, including the US, they don’t have an adequate public voice. But the difference between Kenya and the US is that the gay community in the US has been embraced by the Democratic Party. It’s an important constituency politically – a large voting bloc and also a source of campaign funds for Democrats. Thus gays have a voice in the political process. There is a movement, albeit very small, to force the Republican Party to recognize gays. Several states, including New York – the third largest in the Union – has legalized gay marriage. These changes have been possible because of the smart political advocacy of the gay movement in the US. They have done so without fear, or begging. I feel that the gay movement isn’t bold enough. It’s still self-stigmatized and cowed. It must show courage, speak openly and DEMAND its rights. Rights are never given – they must be taken.
Q: There have been voices that question the inclusion and or participation of ‘heterosexual’ persons in the gay movement. What are your thoughts on this?
Anyone who questions the unity of the rights language is a fool. We need as many voices as possible speaking about ALL rights. It would be tragic if gay folks thought that only they should speak about gay rights. That’s not how rights claims are mainstreamed. I would go so far as to say that the gay rights movement will not achieve any success in Kenya UNLESS heterosexuals are a part of it. The same is true of the women’s rights movement and others. In unity there is strength, and weakness in disunity. But I strongly believe that the leadership and the agenda of the gay rights movement MUST come from gays themselves.
Q: One of the greatest challenges is the lack of awareness of one’s human rights and therefore most people whose rights are denied (violated, abused, e.t.c.) do not seek redress or are unaware of how to. This is more so in the gay community. How do you think this can be addressed?
The success of every rights claim must begin from the inside out. Gay people must educate themselves first so that they can educate others. That’s why we need more gay organizations in Kenya. But the gay movement must also seek to incubate in the mainstream human rights groups like FIDA and the KHRC gay rights agendas. There cannot be redress without self-knowledge of rights and how they can be protected. This is the role of the leadership of the gay rights movement.
Q: Now more than ever, the once ‘hidden’ gay community is now coming out and are even publicly advocating for recognition and acceptance. Whereas this has been heralded as a provocative and dangerous move, what is your opinion?
There will be no success for the gay rights movement if there is no public visibility of gays. Gays must come out so that Kenyans can see them. The gay movement cannot be a closet movement. No movement has ever succeeded in hiding. Why should seeking human dignity be provocative? As Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary said, “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced stemming from your support for gay rights?
I have been vilified for supporting gay rights. I have been accused of being gay. I have been attacked for preaching moral decay. I have been called every name you can imagine. Many of these attacks and accusations would be comical were they not so tragic and dangerous. But I take solace in two facts. It’s good to know the enemy – so that we know how to confront him. Second, none of the attackers can defend their position with intellect and logic. This to me means that they are fighting a losing battle as all bigoted battles will be lost eventually. The attacks only make me more determined to advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians.
Q: Any final words?
Remember, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. The clouds may be dark now, but tomorrow looks brighter because that is the march of history. We will never be free – especially as heterosexuals – if our gay brothers and sisters are not free. Aluta continua!