As Kenya’s lesbian and gay community marks the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), the country is currently in discussion over the thorny issue of sexual minority rights.
This follows the launch of a public inquiry report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, KNCHR, on sexual and reproductive health in Kenya. The Commission is the government human rights watchdog and it provides key leadership in moving Kenya into a human rights state.
Further, the KNCHR’s main mandate is to investigate and provide redress for human rights violations, to research and monitor the compliance of human rights norms and standards, to conduct human rights education, to facilitate training, campaigns and advocacy on human rights as well as collaborate with other stakeholders in Kenya.
This month the KNCHR released a report entitled, Realising Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights in Kenya: A Myth or a Reality? This report has sparked much debate as, among its many recommendations, it calls for the decriminalisation of both homosexuality and sex work.
The most talked about recommendations of the research said, “It is clear from the findings that sexual minorities face numerous sexual and reproductive rights violations on the basis of their sexual orientation and behaviour. These largely stem from laws that criminalise them, societal definition of what is morally acceptable and that which is not, denial of their existence by the society, among other factors.”
It was this that triggered reactions from religious groups who, as might have been expected, registered their opposition. Dr David Oginde, a Bishop with Christ is the Answer Ministries was quoted in the press saying, “This is an agenda that is international. It is an agenda being pushed upon us as Africans irrespective of our cultures and our religion and is an agenda we will not just accept.”
The Bishop raises the issue of ‘African-ness.’ Who gets to define how ‘African’ something really is? Or perhaps more to the point, who among us can claim the moral high ground to say what is or is not African? Perhaps it is a blow below the belt to mention the obviously glaring fact that most common religious doctrines predominant in Kenya did not originate in Africa.
Nevertheless, if the main argument of religious groups is that the gay rights issue is a western influence or agenda being forced down our throats, then why are we not questioning the origins of these religions in the first place and to what extent can we call this reaction blatantly hypocritical?
It is also a fact that there are documented records that same sex relations have been a feature in various Kenyan traditional societies for a long time. In fact, Kenyan courts have set precedent in favour of woman-to-woman marriages recognising them as based on African traditional culture set-ups.
There is also a misconception that just because a majority agrees on certain matters, that makes those issues ‘truths.’ Truth is not based on majority votes and no matter how many religious Kenyans we have, the country ought to protect all its citizens.
The laws of a secular state cannot be based on religious texts and we need to keep in mind that Kenya remains a secular state irrespective of how many Christians, Muslims or any other religious groups live within its borders.
One elementary flaw in constructing society based on religious belief is that religion is a very personal journey. It defines an individual’s own moral compass and it cannot form a basis on how society should be constructed, built or governed. No two faiths are similar and faith is subjective.
This is for instance reflected very clearly in Christians who believe in salvation and espouse that Jesus Christ is their ‘personal saviour.’ Matters of national debate cannot be based on individual beliefs.
When tackling the issue of sexual orientation, or expression we need to ask ourselves who gets to tell society what ‘normal’ sex is. How do we put in place laws that dictate to mutually consenting adults how they will relate to each other sexually? Whether this is transactional sex or not, do we envision a society that snoops in its citizen’s bedrooms looking for those deviating from what has been defined as ‘normal sex?’
If this seems problematic to you then perhaps the real gist of the debate is beginning to get clearer. If one’s right to make their own sexual choices as a consenting adult is smothered, then what lengths would society go to narrow personal freedoms and ultimately smother all things considered a deviation from normative behaviour.
Who decides what normative behaviour is and why? This is what we need to discuss.
In the same manner, when it comes to gender identity issues, one’s choice and expression of identity should not place them at a disadvantage in society or lead to a violation of their rights as Kenyan citizens. Again, the stumbling block here is about deviating from set ‘normativity’ in society; a deviation from the set gender binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’ irrespective of whether everyone in society fits neatly into these boxes.
That being said however, there seems to be a pay off in the advocacy strategy of the Kenyan LGBTI and human rights sector. The persistent pursuit of equality at technocrat level rather than at political, judicial or legislative level seems to be working. With Kenyan government institutions like the KNCHR and government policy papers like the Kenya National Aids Strategy Paper III fronting, defending and advocating for sexual minority rights, it has provided a platform of influence that has greater impact in pushing a national dialogue on sexuality, identity and rights.
It seems that finally Kenyans can no longer safely avoid this topic or ignore their fellow Kenyans of non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity.
You may read the full KNCHR document here