My first homosexual experience happened with a male friend at the age of nineteen. We came across an older man lying on the ground, bleeding and crying profusely. We helped him to his feet while he explained through tears that he had meant no harm. He had simply made a pass at another man and that man’s response was to beat him almost to a pulp. Reflecting back on that incident in the context of the current case before High Court, I cannot express how far we have come as a country.
A few years back, an opinion poll noted that 86 per cent of Kenyans were okay living next to neighbours of a different ethnicity, religion or who had HIV/Aids. By contrast, only 14 per cent would be comfortable living next to people who were gay or lesbian. Stigma and persecution of gay communities makes it impossible to estimate the size of the community. They are one of our most invisible communities.
What is visible, is the derision and violence this community continues to experience. Eighty nine percent of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) Kenyans who have openly expressed their sexuality have experienced being disowned at home, ostracised and/or fired from their workplace and ridiculed by their communities.
A small number of religious and political leaders have openly called on their followers to expose and arrest them or eject them from their places of worship.
Seemingly compassionate people like you or me have called for boycotts of businesses owned by gays, “their” removal from “our” apartment blocks and even caning them publicly. Our authorities have banned movies and cartoons fearing their impact on us. Last year, our Commander in Censorship Ezekiel Mutua became the subject of a Trevor Noah show after he proposed placing two male lions photographed having intercourse in quarantine.
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This toxicity around same sex relationships has ended up in blackmail, risky sexual behavior, depression and denial of essential services available to others. Yet, by African standards, Kenya is increasingly becoming a more open, honest and liberal society on this issue. President Kenyatta’s famous phrase “Gays are a non-issue in Kenya” when pressed by President Obama in 2015 was an important recognition that this sexual minority would not be treated any different from heterosexual Kenyans.
It is in this context that Senior Counsel Paul Muite rose this week to make a historic case before our High Court to de-criminalise sexual orientation and same sex intimacy. His client, the National Gay and Lesbian Rights Commission seeks to demonstrate that sections 162 and 165 of the Penal Code are incompatible with national values and our bill of rights. They cite the right of all people to realise their full potential (Article 19), freedom from discrimination and the right to equal opportunity (Article 27), dignity (Article 28) and privacy (Article 31).
By comparison, Sections 162 and 165 of the Penal Code are relics handed down by British colonial law. They outlaw “carnal knowledge between men,” “indecency” and sodomy as an unnatural acts. Imagine going to jail for fourteen years for having consensual sex with another human being you love!
The case is a bold one. It is up against concerns that if we freely choose our sexual partners this will be the end of our religious values, morals and the institution of marriage. These thoughts are as old as the Sections the commission seeks to strike out.
Three decades after my first experience of “gay bashing”, things have become clearer for me. Human beings love to think in binaries of man or woman, right or wrong, us and them. There is nothing wrong or bad in this, but it may be a lighter form of insanity. Secretly, we know the world is more complicated than these simple binary thoughts we hold in our heads. Male female relationships are not the only form of sexual orientation, they are simply, only the most common.
Secondly, gays seem to be the only distinct community besides Christian and Muslims who are actively fighting for the institution of marriage globally. Perhaps, it is time they formed an alliance? Stigma and violence has no place in our society. It is time that gays took the space in this great country to speak their truth clearly and without fear. It’s time the rest of us listened without prejudice.
Mr Houghton writes in a personal capacity. @irunguhoughton