‘If Gays Didn’t Exist: Inside Kenya’s Dalliance with Homophobia

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In November 1999, Dr. Margaret Ogola, a renowned Kenyan author and paediatrician, walked onto a podium in Geneva, Switzerland. She was there to receive an award, the World Congress of Families (WCF) Award for Humanitarian Service, at the WCF’s second congress.

Dressed in a white dress and a white doek, Dr. Ogola’s acceptance speech was part history and part analysis. She used part of her time to muse on “the collapse of the ideal of the sacred nature of sex”, providing some historical context about the shift in attitudes from the late Sixties. She spoke on contraceptives, the demystification of sex, ‘planet Hollywood’, divorce, and the “assumption of a small family norm.”

Her brief speech on the demerits of the sexual revolution lit up the auditorium, and she received the longest applause during the whole congress.

Since it begun in the United States in 1997, the World Congress of Families has held conventions across the world and built a global brand as an advocate of the values of the Christian Right. It built an influential global network, providing a platform for multi-pronged campaigns for one-man one-woman nuclear family, and against same sex relations, rights, and unions.

By the time it sponsored its African regional forum at the Kenyatta International Conference Center in Nairobi in late September 2016, it had morphed into its truest form. The organisers of the three day-gathering in 2016 had a broad agenda, but one of its main organisers, Ann Kioko, a conservative mobiliser who has worked with various conservative institutions, made it clear in the days before that it would be focused on abortion and the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education.

“These programs go beyond regular sex education,” Anne Kioko, at the time the President of African Organisation for Families said, “(they) are designed to change all the sexual and gender norms of society.”

Two years earlier, the WCF had been categorised as a hate group promoting homophobia and anti-reproductive rights across the world, and identified as a lead campaigner for incredibly harsh antigay laws in Uganda and other countries. Yet, its 2016 counted among its local sponsors The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and the government through the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.

At the 2017 conference in Nigeria, Charles Kanjama, a Kenyan lawyer and member of the Opus Dei who was already becoming the legal face of antigay advocacy outside of Parliament, said that “Advocates of strong families and natural families have to be proactive and offensive rather than defensive in achieving what we define as an ideal family.”

Kanjama is also a leader and mobiliser of the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum (KCPF), which has provided significant legal, intellectual, and public opposition to a film about two lesbians, the registration of an advocacy group focused on LGBTQ+ issues, and support to an anti-gay bill sponsored by Peter Kaluma, MP for Homa Bay Consistency and one of the main voices of homophobia in parliament.

Among the goals of the 2018 conference was “increased advocacy on family through publications, research, bills, policies, and programs.” This had already worked, driven by WCF’s and other Christian Right’s organisations money and influence, in Uganda, although the law had been overturned by a court but would soon return.

According to an online program, the 2018 conference came against the backdrop of a legal challenge against Kenya’s anti-sodomy law. It called the challenge’s advocates “sexual radicals” and argued that “If they achieve this goal, they’ll secure a beachhead. This will be quickly followed by gay rights laws, the institution of same-sex marriage and, ultimately, the persecution of Christians.”

The Persecution of Christians

In its, “The Geneva Declaration 1999”, released after the conference where it awarded the Kenyan author, the WCF’s described how it saw its purpose: ”Ideologies of statism, individualism and sexual revolution, today challenge the family’s very legitimacy as an institution.”

Its attendees were multi-denominational, including as many colours of Christianity and Islam as it could. Its roster was also ambitious, as it saw its purpose as the restitution of the big, nuclear family. So it awarded a brilliant doctor who also moonlit as an award-winning author.

Already a renowned author whose seminal work “The River and the Source” was part of the high school curriculum, Dr. Ogola received the award for her work as a paediatrician at a hospice for HIV/AIDS orphans, among other humanitarian work. It was also, perhaps, not entirely a random decision by the Christian Right, who make up the majority of the membership organisations of the WCF.

Dr. Ogola, who died in 2011, was a devout Catholic who had joined the conservative Opus Dei sect within the church a few years before. Although Catholicism provided her with moral clarity, it sometimes placed her work as a medical doctor working with HIV/AIDs patients at odds with the church’s doctrines on preventative measures such as condom use. As an author, a doctor-a paediatrician at that-, and a devout Christian, it also placed her in a unique position to speak on ‘family values.’

Dr. Ogola attended the first congress in Warsaw in 1997, was in the planning of the committee of the second one in Geneva, and spoke at several subsequent conferences. Although she seems to have mostly avoided the brewing sexuality conversations, the platforms she found herself addressing often did not.

In August 2005, seven years after she received the WCF award, Dr. Ogola was among the keynote speakers at a congress on families organised and hosted by Strathmore University and Family Network in Nairobi. The institution was founded by Opus Dei members in the early 1960s, and espouses conservative ideals about multiple issues, including student’s dressing, to date.

The conference, held in the university’s auditorium, was well attended, attracting participants from 18 countries for what was already becoming a major point of political and social rhetoric in the region. In addition to Dr. Ogola, other keynote speakers were drawn from major Christian Right organisations, including a representative from the World Congress of Families.

In an op-ed that ran in a Lagos-based newspaper the following week, the Nigerian lawyer and columnist Sonnie Ekwowusi, who had attended the conference, begun by describing a hypothetical situation involving an African man in the diaspora who gets married to another man. He wrote that: “if some people in our midst are sick we have to sympathize with them and if necessary take them to the hospitals for treatment” in reference to homosexuality and referring perhaps to conversion therapy.

“To change the natural meaning of the family and model it on the deviant behaviour of a few sick individuals is, to say least, to debase our humanity,” he added.

By then, conversations about “family values” had long found a boogeyman in the form of same sex marriage and basic human rights . The process for both human rights advocates and family values advocates had begun much earlier, in the United States in the late 1960s, with the latter being a reactive force against the former. Continuing conversations and advocacy over the next decade, which also included the removal of homosexuality from the standard list of mental disorders, and the coining of the term “homophobia,” lay groundwork in the US that would soon find its way into dangerous social discourse on the African continent from the mid-1990s.

A 2018 study among 1200 Kenyan religious leaders, from Christianity and Islam, found that a substantial minority (37%) “endorsed the use of violence for maintaining social values.” The study was specific to homosexuality and gender conformity, which a majority of the respondents, unsurprisingly, said were sinful and morally wrong.

Sex is probably the only thing the two faiths agree on fully, even going as far as to collaborate on advocacy. In August 1995, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nairobi and the Imam of Jamia Mosque burnt sex education books and condoms in Nairobi in protest of sexual health proposals that the government soon shelved. This placed the government in an awkward position, as it had finally acknowledged the threat HIV/AIDS posed, and understood the need for immediate investments in public health and sex education.

But the reasons in Kenya, and sub-Saharan Africa, initially had less to do with local advocates for basic protections, a more accomodating legal framework, or even efforts to codify legal protections.

It was about politics, both local and international.

The Stud in the Room

On June 7th, 2011, the future Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and his future deputy, Nancy Baraza, sat across a parliamentary panel. They had been nominated a month before by the Judicial Service Commission for the new top roles in the judiciary, as qualified outsiders who would lead the new top judicial organ, the Supreme Court.

Among the legislator’s main questions was something with less to do with qualifications or knowledge of jurisprudence, or at least, not outwardly so. The MPs wanted to know where the two stood on critical social issues, specifically homosexuality, abortion and divorce.

They narrowed in on Mutunga’s stud, which he had been wearing for years. By the end of the panel, both Mutunga and Baraza had been asked whether they were gay. Mutunga made it clear he wasn’t, and emphasised he did not discriminate against gay people, while Baraza chose a middle ground, saying that she didn’t have a stance yet.

“My stud was seen to represent my sexual orientation. I have openly supported gay rights movements on the basis of humanity of all and on sound theological arguments from Christian and Muslim texts,” the retired Chief Justice says.

Mutunga’s fashion choice dominated headlines and social conservations. Online archives on the website Wazua show spirited conversations about the stud, and the suitability of a chief justice who wore one.

“Where does he live? Is he living alone? Where are his children? Are the children straight?” A user called Impunity wanted to know in mid-May 2011.

Abortion and sexuality s had been part of recent public discourse since the previous year, when Christian groups and politicians found common ground and worked together to oppose Kenya’s proposed new constitution. While sexuality and LGBTQ+ protections were not part of the draft, they had beenhad been an issue during its drafting, especially after media reports of the first same-sex marriage between two Kenyans in London in October 2009 (they divorced two years later).

News of the marriage triggered a social debate in Kenya, with a member of the lawmaking committee telling journalists that they had told British MPs seeking the inclusion of such rights in the draft that “if we did so, a majority of Kenyans would reject the draft.” So they didn’t, but the social conversations around sexual orientation did not end.

The coalition that emerged to oppose the new laws was mainly led by two groups. While politicians were mainly opposed to clauses on land and driven by political ambitions, Christian groups were driven by their opposition to perceived abortion rights in the documents, and the inclusion of Kadhi courts.

They lost, and the result was that a year later, as the government moved to build the new institutions in the new laws, yet the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice nominees, as the likely heads of the one body that would eventually handle such pertinent social questions, would be answering questions about the same issues, and their sexual orientation.

But the flawed correlation between Mutunga’s earring and sexual orientation might have had some historical context in a speech from a decade earlier.

“It is not right that a man should go with another man, or a woman with another woman. It is against African tradition and biblical teachings. I will not shy from warning Kenyans against the dangers (in some references,”of the scourge”),” President Daniel Arap Moi said in a speech in 1999.

“Now we are seeing men wearing earrings to make it easy for them to be identified by other men,” he added.

He made the comments just a day after Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had also riled against homosexuality, as the topic became a favourite meeting ground for politicians, religious leaders, and media houses.

If Gays Didn’t Exist

In 1995, the Zimbabwean government demanded the banning of a gay social organisation from the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. At the fair, Robert Mugabe, who was about to launch a reelection campaign (and a new wife), made a now infamous speech in which he said homosexuals “offend both agents of the law of nature and the morals and religious beliefs espoused by our society.” This was the major theme of his speech, and he described the Gay and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), whose membership was largely white, as “the association of sodomists and sexual perverts.”

Although there had been several similar high profile statements by bureaucrats in the country, Mugabe had finally found a perfect punching bag on which all political sides, and major religions, could agree. Gay bashing became on of his favourite political tools both within and outside Zimbabwe, whose parliament promptly passed an anti-gay law that September.

Perhaps realising the potential of this political rhetoric, which academics term as “othering”, several presidents followed, including Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Sir Sereste Khama of Bostwana, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, and Moi.

“Gay-bashing is one of Uganda’s big bipartisan issues,” the Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in an op-ed in The East African in October 1999, “All sides of the political and religious divide generally tend to condemn it. And on this one, unlike the Congo military adventure, no opposition politician will dare criticise the president.”

“I am now convinced that if gays didn’t exist, Movement/NRM hardliners would have invented them,” Obbo wrote in another op-ed in a Uganda daily the next month.

In Zambia, a 25-year old called Francis Chisambisha triggered the conversation after he walked into the newsroom of The Post, an influential publication, and offered an interview. His decision to come out so publicly was driven by, in part, solidarity with those persecuted in the escalating homophobia in Zimbabwe and South Africa. And it triggered a storm that lasted for a few years.

The choice of sexual orientation as a common bashing ground made political sense even to the most liberal of politicians in the region. In Zambia, former President Kaunda was forced to retract a sympathetic statement he had made and switch to condemnation.

The growing social discourse was now as familiar in Lusaka as it was among politicians in Kampala and other capitals, becoming an almost new form of negative pan-Africanism that lasts to date.

In Zimbabwe it became a lasting social and political discussion especially after Mugabe’s predecessor, the Methodist minister Canaan Banana, was convicted of sodomy and ‘unnatural acts’ in 1997. The charges stemmed from a defence by a former bodyguard who had killed a fellow police officer for calling him “Banana’s wife.” The charges were about rape and not consensual sex with fellow men-there were eleven counts, and rumours of many more. Under Zimbabwe’s laws, similar to other former British colonies, there was no distinction between the two.

Soon, sexuality would become a defining and constant topic as evolving views increasingly begun redefining Christian religious structures and politics in the West, placing the African church (and with it politics) at odds with its parent institutions, much to the benefit of politicians eager for solid platforms about social morality that could unite electorates beyond common issues.

In Uganda and East Africa, it became a two-decade long campaign that quickly attracted white conservative evangelicals who’d now found common ground with mainstream Catholics and Muslims. They brought money, lots of it, and extensive networks and resources. Their success cost lives and manufactured new social and cultural fears, and continues to do so to this day.

‘The Right Way’

According to an investigation by Open Democracy in 2020, US evangelicals invested at least $54mn in Africa from 2007 to 2020, mainly to causes supporting ‘family values’, an all-encompassing term that oft means bans on abortion, homosexuality, and women’s reproductive rights. Among the most receptive societies to the idea of banning homosexuality, and going a step further by imposing harsh sentences, is Uganda, where moral and legal outrage about it has been a major issue since the mid to late 1990s.

Perhaps inspired by the sensationalism and public interest it had inspired in Zimbabwe and Uganda, public conversations about homosexuals in Kenya seem to have begun around the same time. From June 1998, The Daily Nation and The Standard ran several articles on the topic, including features that included gay men using pseudonyms.

In an editorial prefacing a two-part series by the journalist Wanjira Kiama and published in June 1998, the Daily Nation included comments from a 37-year-old accountant about what he would do if he found out his son was gay. “I would disown him before I cause him grievous harm. I would rather sire a cow than a homosexual,” the man said.

While the headlines were at best conservative and a tad bit ignorant, the stories within them are illuminating. Kiama interviewed more than ten men from all walks of life, including an 18-year-old, a 42-year-old petrol attendant, and a 55-year-old casino manager. The interviews covered sex life, sexual orientation, commercial sex, and struggles of gay men forced to marry women to hide their sexuality.

But while the paper may have headlined homosexuality as ‘taking root’, Kiama traced key moments in the history of gay associations in Kenya. “In the 1960s, there was an attempt to form a gay club in Nairobi, when men met at the Pop-In restaurant (now closed),” she wrote, “In the early 1970s, another Nairobi restaurant was popular until street fights erupted between women sex workers and gay men.”

Another club, Club 1900, that became a popular hangout for the LGBTQ+ community was closed down by the authorities, although they cited drugs and drug use as the reason.

The news cycle after that was littered with news about gays: in 2003, a gay cruise was blocked from docking in Mombasa; the scandals around the election of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church, in 2003; Anglican and other mainstream churches banning congregations from accepting funding from American churches for that; prison officers discussing rape; and the marriage of two Kenyans in the diaspora.

The perspectives made Kenya an imperfect hunting ground for the Christian Right. While unwilling to go the whole way from the onset like its landlocked neighbour, the things that make Kenya attractive to the West made it perfect as a beachhead, and playing ground, of what could be achieved in their global campaign against human rights for LGBTQ+ communities, basic reproductive rights, and proper sex education.

In 2002, an Eldoret-based pastor called Bishop Simon Mac’Onyango sent an email to Scott Lively of the Abiding Truth Ministries (ATM) seeking support for his church, called the Present Truth Ministry. Mac’Onyango’s cold contact was driven, mostly, by the simple fact that there was some similarity in their churchs’ names. The invite coincided with Lively’s plans; he had been invited to participate in the East Africa leg of the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) 50-nation outreach.

Already a known figure in anti-LGBT circles, Lively was also widely known for his 1995 book, The Pink Swastika, where he blamed gay people for the Holocaust, and for his growing work across the globe where he used the pulpit to rile against reproductive rights and homosexuality. His initial pet topic had been abortion, but he pivoted to homosexuality in the early 1990s.

Lively was only on his second visit to the continent: during the first, three months earlier, he had been a keynote speaker at a conference in Uganda organised by Stephen Langa and Family Life Network. Although that conference was billed as being against “pornography and obscenity”, it would also soon morph into its real form as an influential platform for driving rhetoric with less veiled gatherings such as the “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual’s Agenda” in March 2009, where Lively would promote his 1995 book and conspiracy theories.

But in 2002, he had solid contacts in Uganda and non forthcoming in Kenya, even growing concerned when he did not get invites in Nairobi because he had assumed it “would be the hub of pro-family activities in the nation.”

So he accepted Mac’Onyango’s invite.

After his visit to Uganda, Lively crossed the border and got to Eldoret by road, spending more than a week with Mac’Onyango and his church.

In Eldoret, Lively’s organisation donated $1500 for registration fees, office space, and furniture. Lively himself saw the opportunity of the visit: “ATM now has a ministry partner in Kenya dedicated to promoting Christian family life as a solution to social problems and to opposing pornography, promiscuity, ‘safe sex’ condom distribution programs, abortion and homosexuality,” he wrote in a publicly available diary during his 2002 trip.

It was just the beginning, as Kenyan right wingers tapped into extensive networks to stay on course, and human rights advocates focused on LGBTQ+ issue found their place in Kenyan society. Meanwhile, the Kenyan state stayed mostly neutral in practice, even as hate crimes, including murder, begun happening in different parts of the country.

Part 2 coming soon

Owaahh, 2024

One Story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: April 9, 2024