‘If Gays Didn’t Exist’ Part II

Written by | Projects


Read Part I here.

In November of 2019, the world descended on Nairobi for an important but highly controversial UN conference. By then, the United Nations had become a major arena for religious and social groups opposed to comprehensive sex education, and everything that fell within the “family values” container. In many UN gatherings, especially where population and other issues were on the agenda, Christian Right wing organisations organised parallel events, linking politicians and other decision makers with extensive literature and support.

Even days before the conference on population and development, known as ICPD+25, the “gay agenda” had already begun to dominate news headlines in Kenya. It was driven by religious leaders, at least one council of elders, and other conservative groups. Even William Ruto, who was deputy president at the time and in an election campaign, revisited the issue, assuring clergymen in Narok that the country was going to host the conference but would not “accept practices that are in conflict with our culture” and he and other would “stand firm as leaders to oppose any teachings and issues that go against our stand as Christians.”

As the event was ongoing at the KICC, a different kind of global conference was happening across the street, hosted by the Holy Family Basilica. Organised by the Kenya Christian Professional Fellowship with the support of various groups within the Catholic Church and evangelicals, it was meant to be an answer to the ongoing, progressive, debates happening across the street. The side events included collaborations between different groups with a common agenda such as C-FAM, Family Watch International, Political Network for Values, and the UN Family Rights Caucus.

And yet the “gay agenda” was just the headline grabbing part of the story. 

The main bits, outlined at a religious gathering the day before the UN conference begun, was family planning, sex education, abortion, and body autonomy. “My colleagues who opposed these issues were denied accreditation,” a Muslim cleric told a journalist. 

At the time, Donald Trump was President of the United States and his insular focus at home, and influential money and evangelical networks around reshaped the system, had made a former US senator called Kyle McCarter who had lived in Kenya for a year in the late 1980s, the US ambassador to Kenya. McCarter, who once voted against an anti-bullying bill for public schools because he believed it would promote homosexuality, as among the most prominent attendees at both conferences. 

Trump’s presidency had given strength to a right wing movement that had been bubbling since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, and which had dedicated itself to fighting for “family values.” But often, these were fringe issues in light of the wars on drugs, terrorism, and economic malaise. But the lasting power of religion kept it burning, and revivals in former colonies and new age global issues helped keep the embers aflame.

It also helped that there was a small, but rapidly growing, network of professionals and politicians who saw the vast potential of importing such conversations from the frame of religion. 

An investigation by Open Democracy in 2020 found that 20 US Christian Right organisations had poured more than $50mn into such organisations and other efforts to fighting against LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights and comprehensive sexual education.

“If anything, the modern articulation of right-wing, white evangelicalism is a reaction to the impact of the liberation theologies of the 1960s and 1970s in the US,” the academic Wandia Njoya wrote on Africa is a Country, “Led by figures like Paul Weyrich, the right wing actively sought the collaboration of American evangelicals to fight against the gains of the civil rights movement without mentioning politics or race.”

But it wasn’t just Americans.

Seven months before the 2019 conferences, the then Kiminini MP Chris Wamalwa had posted images of himself with the caption. “At the sidelines of political network for values conference,  parliament buildings in Bogota,  Colombia” on Facebook The Political Network for Values, despite its innocuous name, is an influential global meeting of anti-LGBT rhetoric leaders such as Brian Brown, the President of IOF, WCF and NOM. Its chair is the Chilean politician and former presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast. Its advisory board is made of Catholic politicians from18 countries including the US, Europe (7), Latin America (9), and Kenya.

The organisation CitizenGo was founded in 2001 by Spanish attorney Ignacio Arsuaga as “HatzeOir” which translates to “Make Yourself Heard.” It then rebranded, and has its fingerprints not just in Africa, but also in the European Parliament, Georgia, Russia, and other places, advocating for the same issues. Although the organisation says it funds its work through small donations, a data leak by a group of hackers showed that it had also received significant contributions from companies and wealthy individuals including a €40,000 from the son of Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican oligarch.

It counts among its trustees an Italian politician convicted of being part of an elaborate money-laundering scheme meant to lobby European politicians and opinion leaders on behalf of Azerbaijan. Although he was later acquitted, evidence from the investigation showed that his foundation had received at least €2.39 million in the scheme, some of which went to CitizenGo. Other trustees have connections to religious groups, including the Catholic Church in Peru, the Russian Orthodox Church, the World Congress of Families, and conservative media groups and oligarchs.

Its fundraising efforts, combined with the lack of a strong moral backlash similar to that facing US evangelicals, gave CitizenGo the might to build a global network, opening offices in 15 countries including Kenya.

“We have seen CitizenGO troll us on social media … my photo being shown on social media as a killer, being called names, being called organisations that are funded by the whites, advancing the white agenda,” Nelly Munyasia, the ED of KRHN, told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 

The Bureau found that 34 of 52 petitions on the CitizenGo website were aimed specifically at Ghana and Kenya, with almost half focused on anti-abortion. Its reach on the continent was growing, making it one of the most active players in advocating for ultra-conservative issues.

But modern organisations, including the current crop of clergy who periodically add the ‘gay agenda’ to issues about reproductive rights, do not entirely explain why homophobic organisations found such fertile ground.


In 2004, the historian Derek Peterson interviewed an elderly Ugandan woman about her conversion during the East African Revival, a renewalist Christian movement that begun spread across the region from the late 1920s. 

A big part of the movement, which grew out of frustrations with mainstream Christianity especially the Anglican Church, was about confession and testimony. The movement encouraged, obliged even, converts to publicly confess their sins, especially sexual sins, witchcraft and theft.

The woman told the researcher that before her conversion in 1936, she had been engaging in same sex ‘play’ before she heard a voice telling her “That habit that you were in is sin.” True to form during the revival, she stood up in church the next day and openly confessed. The revival was disruptive to colonial order, and there were many unsuccessful attempts at stopping its spread through the region. It provided a form of rebellion within the Christian faith that not only shook the mainstream religious groups and doctrines, but also planted seeds that continue to define the region’s moral issues today.

The best example is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, whose parents were part of the movement and who has expressed admiration that the revival’s message had “helped instill discipline in society and people had to do away with bad behavior such as promiscuity, drunkenness and hatred and substituted them for new values.” While he himself broke with the movement in his 20s because it preached poverty was virtue, its easy to see the remnants of its teachings in his, and Uganda’s approach to questions of morality, sexuality and sin. Its remnants also still run within Kenya’s churches and their doctrine, particularly among Pentecostals and Evangelicals where openness about sin takes precedence over everything else.

With a captive audience every weekend, a common text and a common cause, evangelical ideas spread throughout society, affirming many aspects of social identity. But it also hindered evolving social discourse on major issues that the governing structures had to deal with, especially with matters of sex and family. This lack of evolution, and the underlying identity of even revivalists as traditionalists who combine the tenets of evangelical Christianity with aspects of perceived African traditions, made them ripe for the agenda-setting strategies of foreign ultra-conservatives who were losing their own social debates on sexuality and other issues. All they had to do was to dress any social discourse, especially where driven at the United Nations or common across societies, as a new age form of colonial conquest.

One fundamental finding of this investigation is the extensive adaptation of the Christian Right in how it works with partners on the African continent.  For example, while it was clear from Open Democracy’s investigation in 2020 that the US evangelicals are willing to invest money directly in the causes they are attempting to drive on the continent, this investigation finds that they approach Kenya from a broader, more direct, and less obvious investment than Uganda or even Ghana. 

In 2020 for example, Family Watch International held a webinar named “Protect Kenya Children”, hosted by its president Sharon Slater. Slater’s husband, Greg, the VP of global regulatory affairs at Intel, is also a member of the Family Watch International board; there have been campaigns to hold him responsible, for his work with FWI. But Kenya has mainly been a less conducive environment than its neighbour, with most of the people pushing ultra conservative ideals unwilling to devote all their time to a single cause, such as pushing through the copycat anti-homosexuality bill.

FWI has facilitated conferences in Uganda for two years in a row, aimed at influencing members of parliament on what first appear to be the usual issues. In the 2023 conference on “family values and sovereignty”, parliamentary leaders from 22 countries on the continent attended. On paper, the 2023 conference was sponsored by the Parliamentary Forum on Family in Uganda, the African Bar Association, and a Nigerian anti-abortion group. But FWI was deeply involved, despite going to great lengths to hide their involvement. 

In May 2024, the groups held their second forum at the Imperial Resort Beach Hotel in Entebbe, ending the conference with sending a delegation to Uganda’s State House. Among the major issues discussed at the forum was the Samoa Agreement, a treaty set to redefine how the European Union engages with 79 countries, most of them on the African continent.

The Samoa Treaty which FWI President Sharon Slater calls a “bait and switch”operation where the EU has “deceptively turned this trade and economic agreement into a human rights, sexual-social engineering treaty, using the force of treaty law to impose the EU’s deviant, sexual and social values on ACP countries,”according to an interview she gave in late 2023. A Carribean clergyman has called the agreement a new “colonial imposition,” which perhaps points to the broader agenda of keeping the issues within the news cycle.


Another reason, perhaps, why what has worked so well in Uganda has at best stalled as an issue of national discourse in Kenya is the place and prominence of openly gay people in society, and the growth of a slew of human rights organisations willing to fight for the protection of sexuality in court, on the streets, and elsewhere. The famous poet Jonathan Kariara, who died in 1993 at the age of 58 years, was perhaps the first prominent gay icon in Kenyan society although it was not as major a controversy for public debate by then.

In 1989, the media was awash with stories about the sexual reassignment surgery done at KNH on a woman only identified as Rose.

And yet, the clock both moves forward and backward. In March 2009, a transgender woman known as Audrey Mbugua had her scheduled operation halted by the Minister for Health, Prof. Anyang Nyong’o, who cited the 1989 case because Rose’s parents “gave the state a lot of grief following her surgery.”

The Kenyan state, despite not going the full Uganda route, tries to maintain an untenable balance where it does not anger the clergy and with it, what it sees as large swathes of society. Yet it was among the main hosts of LGBTQ+ refugees fleeing persecution in Uganda, and without much experience hosting vulnerable groups, exposed them to even more harm within refugee camps. Outside the regional threads, there is also trouble at home, where there have been multiple hate crimes against LGBTQ+, intersex persons, and other vulnerable groups. Most of these has seemed organic as opposed to driven by politicians or clergymen, yet it is not as innocuous as that, as the history shows deep, long-running hate and fear combining the ideas of sin with the threat of ignorance.

As the global debate around sexual identity grew, and with it a growing number of people willing to move from just verbal support to actual advocacy, a number of organisations have pushed for non-discrimination and hate crimes. They’ve also challenged the simple yet powerful tools used by the Kenyan state. The case of the registration of the The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) in the mid-2010s is a good example, as it pitted the NGO against the government on the issue of registration. There are also other organisations leading the human rights conversations, some such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have a wider lens. Audrey Mbugua now heads the Transgender Education and Advocacy Group, after a similar fight for registration to NGLHRC’s, although her’s ended at the High Court level. There’s also the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), The East Africa Legal Service Network, and the Initiative for Equality and Non-Discrimination (INEND) all working in the advocacy space.

They’ve also been some shifts within religious circles, which is the mainstay of homophobia in Kenya and beyond. While some members of the clergy have called for tolerance, at the very least, the religious angle of the debate and the socio-political power of its leaders remain its most potent tools. A study found at least two cases of religious leaders, one an evangelical pastor and the other a Muslim leader, who lost their jobs after attending an advocacy group’s training workshops, and the Anglican Church suspended several of its priests for similar reasons.

Owaahh, 2024

One Story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: June 7, 2024