Current Affairs

Kenya: A World AIDS Day without Queers?

Kenyan scholar and activist Keguro Macharia on the un-inviting of Kenyan queer activists from World AIDS day.

Guest blog by Keguro Macharia.

I am tempted to title this post A Series of Unfortunate Events, to disavow an insidious homo-killing logic. But I am a proper Kenyan. Raised on the milk of paranoia, I cannot ignore the proximity of coincidence. Three is a magic number.

On November 16, 2010, Kenya joined 78 other countries in a UN vote that elected to un-protect sexual orientation. The vote was on a resolution to investigate “killings based on discriminatory grounds,” a resolution designed to recognize a “non-exhaustive” range of vulnerable groups that includes human rights defenders, indigenous communities, and street children. As noted by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (ILGHCR), “[f]or the past 10 years,” sexual orientation has been included in this grouping, understood as a category based on which individuals are targeted for “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.” It’s worth noting, “The amendment removing the reference to sexual orientation was sponsored by Benin on behalf of the African Group in the UN General Assembly and was adopted with 79 votes in favor, 70 against, 17 abstentions and 26 absent.” Kenya could have chosen differently.

On November 22, 2010, David Kuria, manager of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) and one of Kenya’s leading gay activists, announced that GALCK had not been invited to participate in World AIDS Day events arranged by the National AIDS Control Council. Since 2006, GALCK has been invited to join other health providers and NGOs engaged in HIV/AIDS activism. World AIDS Day events have provided an important space in which proximity and association suggest possible political and social coalitions. As I note elsewhere:

In Kenya, LGBTI activism has taken place, most fruitfully, as a strategy of association rather than an articulation of identity. There are no pride parades, as one might find in New York or Madrid, and no public celebrations of LGBTI identity. Instead, LGBTI activists have mobilized around HIV/AIDS activism. December 1, World AIDS Day, has become an unofficial Pride day, and LGBTI activists march with other HIV/AIDS activists.

The decision not to invite GALCK has important implications for the public life of Kenya’s LGBTI activists.

On November 28, 2010, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s Prime Minister, ordered the Kenyan police to “arrest gay couples.” While “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices between men” are illegal according to Kenya’s Penal Code, no legal basis exists to arrest “gay couples.” Identity is not a crime, as Kenyan columnists reminded the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has since released a press statement that claims he was quoted “out of context,” a too-common Kenyan defense. Strange how often Kenyan politicians never really say what we hear them say.

Three dates. Three seemingly unrelated events. A paranoid (il)logic of coincidence.

Unlike Malawi and Uganda, both infamous for their attempts to legislate a range of queer intimacies, Kenya is considered relatively liberal. Tourist agencies promise discretion as they pursue pink currency. Kenya has a robust online queer presence. LGBTI-friendly initiatives are well-funded by a range of international NGOs. LGBTI-themed seminars are held in Kenya’s numerous conference centers. LGBTI individuals have been profiled in the national newspapers. Kenyan-based human rights organizations support queer rights. And, recently, Esther Murugi, Special Programmes Minister, defended gay rights.

LGBTI activism is as sutured by economics as it is by politics. Kenya’s official and unofficial policies toward LGBTI activism are as influenced by regional and continental politics and allegiances as they are by international social and economic factors—Kenya’s tourist economy, for instance.

Over the past two years, LGBTI issues in Kenya have received an unprecedented amount of press coverage. Public spaces are opening up in remarkable ways. Simultaneously, as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest, there is an equally strong backlash that is as much about economics—how NGO money flows into the country—as it is about politics.

For instance, during the recently-concluded national referendum on a new constitution, opponents of the measure tried to incite LGBTI-panic by claiming the constitution permitted gay marriage. It was the first time that LGBTI politics had been used as a wedge issue, and it said something significant about their social and cultural capital.

The struggle for LGBTI rights in Kenya, as elsewhere, is a struggle over claiming public space. It is a struggle over what opinions can be aired in public and how they will be covered by the press; it is a struggle over which writers have access to opinion pages, radio programs, and TV shows—it’s easier to publish pro-queer, anti-homophobic articles in the Guardian than in the Daily Nation; it is a struggle over which public spaces and events are open to LGBTI organizations; it is a struggle over the possibilities for economic, social, and cultural visibility.

It matters that GALCK was not invited to participate in World AIDS Day events. It matters that LGBTI organizations, many of which are dedicated to working with MSM populations, have no public presence during World AIDS Day events. It matters that the criminalization of gays has important health consequences. It matters that LGBTI lives in Kenya can be pawns in someone else’s chess game. It matters that World AIDS Day can be the occasion for anti-LGBTI actions, even as the logic that claims African AIDS is primarily heterosexual makes such an action unsurprising.

It is morning on the East Coast, early afternoon in Nairobi. Multiple threads converge and snarl here. One wants to believe in the comfort of coincidence, or the accidents of calendars. And that a series of unfortunate events do not mask a more insidious homo-killing plot.

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