When Njeri Makena, a former BBC producer, came out as gay during a TEDxParklands talk, the response from self-righteous Kenyans on the interwebs was swift.
“It’s okay for you to be bold but the word of God will never change to consult (sic) sin. It is the same today yesterday and forever,” someone said in the comments on the YouTube video of the talk.
For people who had known Makena before the TED talk, the public acknowledgement of her sexuality was not a surprise. In her speech, Makena told of the judgement she faced in church, a place she expected to find solace in. Her experience of prejudice because of her demeanor, dress code and sexuality was, again, not news.
Makena’s bold move to speak about her sexuality was perhaps built on the resilience of other gay people in Kenya who before her had chosen to live their lives as free as possible and demand recognition for their existence. For instance, Audrey Mbugua, a trans woman, sued the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC) in 2013 for refusing to change her name on her national exams certificates. Audrey, who was born Andrew, stirred public discourse about the morality of her decisions to change the gender assigned to her at birth. “You cannot correct God,” was among the most common comments from her critics. She won the case, and KNEC was ordered to change her name and remove the gender identifier on her academic certificates.
Audrey was dubbed an oddity for her fight to be identified as a woman in a conservative country. But renowned writer and Kwani Trust founder, the late Binyavanga Wainaina, rekindled the gender and sexuality discourse in 2014 when he came out in a lost chapter from his memoir One Day I Will About this Place. In the piece published on Africa is a Country website with the title “I am a Homosexual, Mum”, Binyavanga imagines having the conversation about his sexuality with his late mother. After coming out, Binyavanga, through international and local media, remained vocal about his sexuality and often posted on his social media accounts his experiences and the prejudice he faced.
While homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya, the country is among 34 Africa states with laws that the government could use to prosecute the LGBTQI+ community. Section 162 of the Penal Code, a holdover of Kenya’s colonial legacy, criminalizes sexual acts among homosexual people. This law provides grounds for which members of the LGBTQI+ face discrimination from law enforcers and the citizenry even though the constitution guarantees equality and freedoms for all.
In 2019, LGBTQI+ advocates filed a suit to have section 162 repealed. The petitioners included gay men, a lesbian, a parent of a gay man, and a priest who witnessed human rights violations against LGBTQI+ persons in his community. Three organizations – the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, the Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley Network and the Kenya Human Rights Commission – joined the suit as petitioners. A three-judge bench of the high court ruled that the law that criminalizes same-sex relations does not violate the constitution.
When Binyavanga came out, it felt as if he was alone in the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya. But members of the community, such as Njeri Makena, have since become emboldened to speak their truth.
More and more queer people have become vocal about their plight, often coming out on social media. Twitter is one of the platforms where homophobia thrives, but Kenyans such as screenwriter Silas Miami have used it to shine a spotlight on the LGBTQI+ community. Miami has shared photos of his boyfriend and candid aspects of his experience on Twitter. To commemorate the beginning of pride month, which is celebrated in June, Silas posted an excerpt from his master’s thesis. The caption read, “queerness is a deeply spiritual gift that I feel honoured to possess.”
On TikTok, Kenyan members of the LGBTQI+ community have found a friendlier platform. Men openly wear makeup and can cross dress in posts tagged under pro-LGTBQI+ hashtags. Others, like Dennis Karari, talk about their attraction to men while advocating for the rights of queer people.
There is also a growing group of allies to LGBTQI+ community. In 2018, the Kenya Film and Classification Board banned the airing of Rafiki, a film depicting romance between two women. KFCB said the film encouraged homosexuality. Rafiki director, Wanuri Kahiu, sued against the ban and was allowed to air the film in Kenya for seven days to achieve an Oscar nomination requirement. (For a movie to qualify for nomination it should have be shown in its home country for at least seven days.) Tickets to watch Rafiki sold out when the film aired in a Nairobi cinema, thanks to large groups of supporters of free expression and persons standing in solidarity with the LGBTQI+ community.
What’s more, in 2019, the LGBTQI+ community scored a win when people who identify as intersex were recognized in the census.
However, the violence meted against the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya cannot go unnoticed. Whether physical or emotional, members of this community are easy targets for attacks by sanctimonious people. This violence is often camouflaged in religious claptrap, with the perpetrators condemning queer people to eternal hellfire.
Yet, even with cynics like KFCB boss Ezekiel Mutua, their spirits and resilience are hardly doused. And more fuel is added to their unrelenting souls by the presence of allies of the LGBTQ community. Amidst the conniving comments from dissenters, allies stand with the community by telling dissenters off. It is not only when a queer person speaks that they come through, but supporters have made the LGBTQ fight their own.
And despite the court upholding Section 162, Mark Ninga, a communication intern at Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, feels the tide is changing.
“People are becoming open minded and I feel the tide is changing because of communities such as GALCK which amplifies queer voices,” Ninga says. “However, we still have a long way to go since sections 162,163 and 165 have not been repealed.”