Kenyan Teen Drama Shuga: Gay rights from the ground up

Over the past few years, the issue of gay rights in Africa has become particularly heated with presidents, preachers and global petitioners all wading in. Kenya has been no exception to this trend. Incidents of sexual abuse and ‘corrective rape’ in Nairobi are on the increase and 2010 saw mass attacks against gay men.

Meanwhile, Catholic and Islamic leaders have united in anti-gay campaigns, proclaiming that homosexuality should be “punishable by death”, and Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently asserted that all “homosexuals should be arrested and taken to relevant authorities” (although later claimed his comments had been misunderstood). Against this, a number of commentators, human rights groups and Western leaders have been similarly vocal in their condemnation of anti-homosexuality.


The cast of Shuga's first series

Amidst this sound and fury, the makers of Kenya’s teen drama Shuga have been quietly preparing for series two. The second installment of the show about young adults growing up in Nairobi is set to begin on Valentine’s Day and will introduce half a dozen new characters, one of whom – Rayban – is gay.

Early-evening teen fiction may seem a minor irrelevance in the grand battle currently being played out around gay rights. But unpacking the nature of anti-gay sentiment in Kenya and examining the historical emergence of positive gay attitudes in other places suggests that it will not be top-down exertions of power and pressure that engender meaningful change, but the far subtler effects of sensitive grassroots activism, a major part of which may well be shows like Shuga.

Indeed, recent high-level pressure from the UK and US on African governments to recognise gay rights badly misfired. Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, amongst others, responded by directly flying in the face of Western criticism and publicly promising that homosexuality would never be legalised, while the Ugandan government condemned the West’s “bullying mentality” and “patronising, colonial rhetoric”. If anything, Western pressure has galvanised anti-gay sentiment in some areas.

Furthermore, activists in Kenya have noted that human rights arguments per se are usually vastly out of touch with how people actually feel and can even be counterproductive in advancing acceptance of homosexuality.

We can begin to understand why this is the case by examining the nature and roots of homophobia in Kenya and much of Africa.

Kenya, as is the case in much of the continent, has a rich history of same-sex practices, and anthropologists believe that at least four Kenyan ethnic groups – the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kamba and Kisii – traditionally respected woman-to-woman marriages. Although homosexuality and homophobia are now inextricably intertwined with politics, religion and socio-economic issues, it was largely through Kenya’s experiences of colonialism and de-colonialism that homosexuality came to be seen as un-Kenyan and taboo.

Kenya’s colonial masters enacted sections 162-5 of the penal code which criminalise same-sex acts. And Kenya’s anti-colonialist struggle established many of the gendered norms that continue to inform notions of masculinity and femininity today.

After decades of colonial emasculation, the fight for independence was construed as an expression of African hyper masculinity while compromise was seen as innately feminine. In a sentiment shared by Kenya’s nationalists, Obed Muteza, mentor to many Zimbabwean nationalist leaders asserted “the choice before me is simple; am I a man or a woman?”

Aggressive masculinity and virility continue to be associated with notions of Kenyan independence and pride. And to these masculine ideals, homosexuality is anathema. Same-sex practices are thought to be innately Western and un-African and Western-led attempts to pressure Kenya into accepting homosexuality are considered to be colonialist and emasculating in the most profound, private and intimate of ways. Human rights – perceived by many to be Western – encounter similar resistance.

Given that homosexuality is broadly associated with Western colonialism, high-level Western pressure will clearly not be the key to advancing popular acceptance of homosexuality. Nor is acceptance likely to be driven by popular African political leaders from above.

The shift, it seems, will have to come from the grassroots and civil society itself. Indeed, this has been the trend with many gay rights movements across the world in which change began with the broadening of recognition of gay people on the ground. This recognition, in many cases, enabled the fostering of greater respect and acceptance of homosexuality through much time and considerable effort. This, in turn, led to the actual enactment of gay rights at the top.

While there have been prominent gay figures in the US for decades, for example, it was only in 2003 that thirteen states actually decriminalised same-sex practices.

In fact, even if rights were to be enacted, they would mean little if they lacked popular legitimacy and could be violated with impunity at the grassroots level. South Africa, for example, boasts one of the world’s most extensive charters of LGBT rights yet many areas are currently experiencing “epidemic” levels of anti-gay attacks.

Ultimately, with or without legal rights, changing the lived realities of gay Africans requires a broad shift of popular attitudes.

Altering popular attitudes in Kenya will be no mean feat. Many Kenyans very rarely encounter openly gay people and consider homosexuality to be synonymous with paedophilia, disease and deviance. In a recent study of attitudes in a Kenyan community, 99% of the 600 surveyed believed that it was impossible for same-sex partnerships to be loving or long-term.

It would be naïve to think a single sympathetic gay character on television could easily change these understandings, but historical and psychological studies suggest that shows like Shuga could be a great cause of hope.

Historians of the US gay rights movement, for example, emphasise the absolutely central role that fictional gay characters on television played in cultivating popular support for the movement, while numerous psychological studies point to the enormous potential for media representations to influence opinion, especially when viewers’ themselves have little direct exposure to a certain issue or group.

Numerous studies (albeit conducted in the West) have found that watching fictional portrayals of gay people for just a short amount of time can profoundly influence viewers’ long-term perceptions of, and social attitudes towards, the entire LGBT community as well as provide invaluable sources of pride to gay viewers.

Encountering homosexual individuals on television can have a very strong humanising effect and render gay people real, familiar and sympathetic to viewers. This exposure to the gay community, despite being fictional, can begin to counteract negative stereotypes, and some studies even suggest that seeing gay role models in the media has a more significant effect on attitudes than even explicit teaching in schools and families.

None of this of course promises that the introduction of the gay character Rayban to Shuga will shift attitudes and lead to meaningful change. But, if done sympathetically and sensitively, we can be hopeful that – while the world’s presidents, preachers and activists bang their heads together over rights and grievances the hearts and minds of Shuga’s young Kenyan viewers might be opened.



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