“Being queer in Kenya means you could go to jail”

Every year in early August the Dutch capital is home to a week-long Gay Pride Festival, celebrating the diversity and defending the rights of LGBTQI+ people both in the Netherlands and around the world. Normally the climax is the Amsterdam Pride Canal Parade – a procession of 80 extravagantly decorated boats along one of the central city canals. Typically, more than half a million spectators join in this huge street party– gay, straight, old and young, everyone is welcome.

This year Coronavirus put the party on hold and the festival week has seen a series of smaller events both online and offline. RNW Media is marking Gay Pride 2020 with the launch of its 6-month campaign #MyStoryForAStory which aims to encourage young people in the Netherlands to show solidarity with their peers in restrictive countries. The campaign kicks off with the story of Kenyan activist, Atieno and her girlfriend. In a short video being shared by Dutch influencers Geraldine Kemper, Milou Deelen  and Linda de Munck , they say, “We are in love but being queer in Kenya means you could go to jail”.

Atieno is one of the many activists who are part of the #Repeal162 movement which is challenging sections of Kenya’s penal code that outlaw ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature and indecent acts between males whether in public or private’. These ‘crimes’ carry a penalty of up to 14 years in jail. As Atieno explains, while it’s not technically illegal to identify as LGBTQI+, this ‘old British law’ criminalises same-sex intimacy and is used to target gay men.

In May 2019, Kenya’s High Court dismissed a petition calling for the repeal of the relevant sections saying the clauses did not discriminate against sexual minorities or violate their constitutional rights as they applied to anyone who engaged in un-natural acts. The ruling was a setback – but not the end of the fight as an appeal is being mounted against that ruling.

“And that’s why we are going to court. The way that law is structured – it goes against a lot of clauses in the constitution. It infringes the right to privacy, it infringes your right to human dignity, a whole list of things in the Bill of Rights.”

“It’s scary”
Violence, discrimination and hate are a daily experience for many members of Kenya’s LGBTQI+ community, says Atieno:

“People have been murdered for coming out, people have been murdered for being gay. … Landlords can just evict you, they say “too many men are coming to this house, what’s happening”. I know someone who had to move house 5 times in one year and this is not uncommon for gay men. For queer women it’s a bit easier you can just say “Oh, you know, she’s my sister”. I have been fortunate to live in areas where it’s more moderate. We have not been overtly attacked. But it is scary.”

Despite the difficulties they face there is a strong core network of activists in Kenya and, says Atieno, it’s getting stronger all the time:

“With this case, a really beautiful thing has happened. Younger activists are coming up, they are bolder and more out. Around the court case we’re seeing younger and younger people which for me is a sign that the movement is strong, it’s growing, it’s really dynamic and that’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Atieno visited the Netherlands last year and sometimes, she says, dream of moving here, to a country where she could marry her partner and they could build a family in relative safety. But, it’s complicated:

“…there’s a part of me that wants to stay at home and see this through. Leaving and being safe would be fine but that’s just for me. There are still all those people who are left behind. “

Life-long fight
While same-sex marriage is almost certainly a very distant prospect for Kenya, Atieno believes decriminalisation will happen – perhaps even as soon as next year. But while that’s an important step it will take longer still for attitudes to change and for the LGBTQI+ community to live in safety and dignity.

“In ten to fifteen years I see decriminalisation and more communal affirmation for queer people. But the fight will still be on. This is a fight we will be fighting all our lives and we’ll die and other people will continue fighting it.”

RNW Media’s #MijnStoryVoorEenStory (#MyStoryForAStory) campaign is asking young people here in the Netherlands to support Atieno and others like her around the world in their fights for their rights and freedoms. And, she believes, there are ways Dutch youth can be allies for the Kenyan queer community:

“Definitely, the Dutch government are strong supporters of human rights all over the world and they continue to provide help and safe spaces where they can. And the Dutch government is a big funder for Kenya so good to urge the Dutch government to push strategically for law reform in Kenya.” 

Strategic support
Atieno also urges people to ‘Jump on our hashtag #Repeal162’ but there is, however, an even more immediate need – and that’s financial support for the local organisations active in the fight for the rights of the queer community. Activities, she says, cost money and every little bit helps. Atieno also stresses the importance of people reaching out to local initiatives to ask how they can help. LGBTQI+ activists across Africa often face accusations of pushing a ‘Western’ agenda so true solidarity needs to be strategic and informed by those on the ground waging the battles.

If you want to help,  these Kenyan organisations are working for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons:

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK)

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC)

Repeal 162

The Initiative for Equality and Non-Discrimination (INEND)

If you are interested in learning more about being gay in Kenya, Atieno is part of the team that created the film ‘I am Samuel’, a portrait of two men falling in love and struggling for acceptance.

And ‘Kenyan, Christian Queer’ is a film about the first LGBTQI+ church in Nairobi, the Cosmopolitan Affirming Community. It poses the question: Is it possible to be African, Christian and gay?

You can read more about the #MyStoryForAStory campaign here. We hope you’ll join in and help create awareness and solidarity by sharing these stories. And look out for our next campaign story on International Youth Day (August 12th).

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