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After Uganda, Kenya Gears Up for Gay Rights Debate

  • Gabe Joselow

Kenyan gays, lesbians and others wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a rare protest against Uganda's increasingly tough stance against homosexuality and in solidarity with their counterparts there, outside the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Feb. 10, 2014.

Kenyan gays, lesbians and others wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a rare protest against Uganda's increasingly tough stance against homosexuality and in solidarity with their counterparts there, outside the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Feb. 10, 2014.

Kenya could become the next battleground for gay rights as lawmakers plan to introduce a motion in parliament to compel authorities to more strongly enforce the country's anti-homosexual laws. Gay rights activists say the pressure has already increased since neighboring Uganda passed a strict anti-gay law last month.

First-term member of parliament Irungu Kang'ata is leading a newly-formed caucus set to combat homosexuality in Kenya.

In an opening move, the lawmaker is requesting the ruling party to explain what measures the government is taking to uphold the current laws.

“The whole idea is, Kenya we do have anti-gay laws, they are there in our books, in our statutes. The issue is about enforcement,” he said.

The existing laws in Kenya make consensual homosexual acts punishable by up to 14 years in prison. No one yet has been convicted in the country, but activists say there are at least eight pending court cases.

The Kenyan caucus was formed during the debate about the anti-gay bill in Uganda that President Yoweri Museveni signed into law in February in defiance of Western pressure. Now, being homosexual in Uganda can land you a life sentence.

Kang'ata said he would consider introducing new legislation to impose harsher penalties in Kenya if parliament determines the current laws were insufficient. His advice to the gay community to avoid trouble? Just keep quiet.

“Even me, you never know my sexual orientation do you? But I do not go shouting how heterosexual or gay I am. Keep it to yourself. Keep it to yourself. Once you come out, it is no longer a private issue, it is a public issue,” he said.

While Kang'ata enjoyed making philosophical arguments about the legal right to regulate sexual conduct, the pitch of his voice rising with his excitement, he also revealed he had a personal interest inspired by an unfaithful, bisexual ex-girlfriend.

“You see, research has shown that if you are gay, you are more times likely to cheat. So the point is, I do know she is a cheater, that is a reality, and by the way, she is anti this legislation, this and my endeavors,” he said.

Whether broken hearts can compel parliament to act is yet to be seen.

But for National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Kenya Director Eric Gitari, the crackdown is a harmful distraction from the country's political problems and a major violation of privacy.

“If we are going to look into the bedrooms of people and supervise what they are doing, what is going to stop the government from looking at our emails, hacking into them, from listening to our phone conversations, from looking at our bank accounts and checking our transactions," said Gitari. "Where is it going to stop?”

A renowned human rights lawyer, Gitari rejected the idea that the gay community should stay silent, insisting it was the politicians who have driven this issue into the open. As a gay man, he said he often felt second-class.

“I feel that I am not getting my full citizenship. There are things I want to do as a full citizen that I cannot do. For example, I want to know that my expression of love does not have to be judged or limited by certain rules,” he said.

Independent activist Kenne Mwikya, who identifies as "queer," said the anti-gay sentiment in Kenya has been rising since the debate in Uganda came to a head last month, providing an opening for lawmakers take action.

“The mood of the country is just right for the likes of Irungu Kang'ata to decide that they should implement anti-gay policies or even enforce the current ones,” said Mwikya

Mwikya said the police have respected gay activists, providing space for public protests for instance, but he worried about threats of attacks from citizen groups against gay and lesbian organizations, citing specific warnings that offices could be raided. There are also reports of gay people being evicted from their homes in Kenya, and others beaten up by mobs of motorcycle drivers in recent weeks.

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