Equal rights for Kenya – A Q&A with FRI and the Gay and Lesbian coalition of Kenya

In the week leading up to Gay Pride in Norway, it’s often easy to forget the significance of the pride movement. In a country where same sex marriages are legal today and discrimination between same-sex relationships is illegal, the importance of pride is often taken for granted. In the context of a party in a city where homosexuality is in the open and (for the most part) accepted, some of the values it was built upon might seem irrelevant today.

But the reality is that pride is the basis of an ongoing struggle and although a country like Norway has won its battle, the war still rages on in other regions.

In Kenya at this very moment the LGBTQ community is facing an unprecedented battle ahead. The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) are currently working towards decriminalising a law, that remains from colonial rule and still prohibits any consensual relationship between persons of the same sex. It’s the first case of its kind in Kenya, but it could also have some significant repercussions in the region where countries like Uganda and Nigeria are facing similar battles.  

Kenya is one of 34 countries on the African continent in which homosexuality is still outlawed today and one of even fewer where a possibility exists to eradicate this archaic law. GALCK have taken the case to the courts and with some help from FRI, the association of gender and sexual diversity in Norway, they aim to make this law a thing of the past and finally bring some justice for the LGBTQ community in Kenya.

As Lina Tordsson of FRI explains via an email, “you can’t sue the state without resources” and the organisation has taken up GALCK’s cause, raising funds to help with the legal costs. Two weeks ago twenty percent from the door at the Gay Guerilla event at Jæger went to this cause and with NORAD (The Norwegian agency of Development and cooperation) pledging 9kr for every 1kr, FRI have raised 161 100 kr for GALCK’s cause from that event.  

We at Jæger wanted to know more about the cause, how the money will be used, the legal battle ahead and how this will help the LGBTQ community in Kenya so we sent some questions to Lina from FRI and Yvonne Odour from GALCK to shed some light on the current situation in the country.

*You can find out more about FRI here and GALCK here and if you would like to contribute you can vipps a donation to FRI at 12011.  

Hello Lina and Yvonne can we start with FRI: Can you tell me about the FRI and what your role within the organisation is?

Lina Tordsson: FRI is part of a global movement for justice and equality, and we have been collaborating with sister organisations in Asia and Africa since 2008, with support from Norad and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. I am part of the international team!

How did FRI get involved with GALCK, and why did you want to particularly take up their cause here in Norway?

L: We have collaborated with GALCK since its inception. Before GALCK, the LGBT community in Kenya was organised into smaller organisations and groups, and they came together to form a national umbrella organisation that could speak for the whole movement with a unified voice.

FRI has seen how important this has been for the movement in other countries, including our own, and therefore we wanted to support their efforts.

Yvonne, tell us a bit about the reality of the situation there in Kenya for LGBTQ people.

Yvonne Odour: LGBTQ rights in Kenya are limited compared to other jurisdictions in the world. Any sexual practices between males termed “gross indecency” are a felony under section 165 of the Kenyan penal code, punishable by  up to 14 years imprisonment.

The state does not recognize any relationships between persons of the same sex; same-sex marriage is banned under the Kenyan Constitution and there are no explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sections 162 a and c and 165 of  the Penal Code continue to validate stigma, discrimination and violence towards individuals who do not conform to society’s expectations on gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. Over 1,000 incidents of violations against LGBTQ people since 2014 have been documented — ranging from murder to mob violence, verbal assault, rape, blackmail and extortion.

How is the Gay and Lesbian coalition of Kenya able to operate in this environment?

Y: Working in a rights constrained context like Kenya can be very challenging. Some of the ways in which we manage to navigate these spaces is forming strong relationships with our partners and allies, there is strength in numbers and our mainstream allies help us get into spaces we normally could not.

At GALCK we also work to show the public that our issues are intersectional, that our struggles as Kenyans intersect and that means joining in other causes like anti-corruption, women’s march and doctor’s strikes so when the time comes, they stand with us. We also work with and for a very resilient community and this gives us strength and courage to exist and work here.

Lina, I know you’re raising funds for the legal battle ahead, but is there any other ways in which FRI is getting involved with this case?

L: FRI believes that the fight for equal rights in a country must be done by the people in that country. GALCK understands the legal structure, the needs of the community, the politics and sensibilities involved – and they are running the show in Kenya. Here in Norway, FRI is working to harness support from the LGBT community here, and work with our embassy and policy makers to ensure they are at hand if the community needs them.

Y: At GALCK, we are cognizant of the fact that there is the court of public opinion outside of the high court, we therefore also ensure that arguments out of court are being had and we engage the Kenyan public in dialogue that is much needed. FRI has continued to support us to ensure that this happens through ; Op-ed pieces, Community dialogue – civic education, Security training for LGBQ folk, Media training for journalist and community members.

How much money will it take to get this law revoked?

L:  I would guess that the answer would be something like this: We do not really know. This has not been tried before in Kenya, and GALCK is paving new ground as we speak. We know that the Kenyan state, some religious entities and individuals will put up a fight, and it will not be an easy victory. But more than the court case itself, it is important that LGBT people all over the country are safe from the harassment and violence that typically follows increased visibility. So GALCK has been working with all its member organisations to train them on safety and security, ensure they are on board with what is happening, and support them in working with their local policy makers to harness support for the cause. The fight will not be won in the courts alone, but among the people of Kenya.

Corruption is a reality in many African countries unfortunately. How do work within these systems to make sure that the funds are directed appropriately?

L: FRI supports GALCK directly. GALCK has a rigid system in place to ensure that the funds are spent appropriately, and they are training their member organisations to do the same thing.

What are some of the most difficult hurdles facing GALCK in this legal process?

Y: Some  of the challenges faces have been, Antigay lobby actively organizing a push back, they are funded and organised and this poses an actual threat to activists and to the cause.

  • They do this trough; sensational opinion pieces in leading Newspapers, Radios station and TV , Sheiks and pastors strongly pushing religious/culture narrative.
  • Banning of RAFIKI (a film about lesbian love that was nominated for the Cannes award),censorship & moral policing by the KFCB Kenya Film Classification Board.
  • President Uhuru Kenyatta’s remarks about gay rights not being an issue in Kenya during his interview on CNN just a day before our mention. He further said that this is not his personal opinion alludes to the possibility of other forces pushing the anti-gay agenda through powerful people.

Nigeria and Uganda have similar laws in place. How could a win in Kenya affect the rest of Africa in that regard?

L: A lot of the countries that have been British colonies in the past have similar laws in place. The law was actually written by the colonial administration in India, and almost copy-pasted to the other colonies. It is part of the colonial legacy that the people of the now independent countries still have to grapple with. FRI thinks Kenya is important because it’s among the largest African economies and a power hub in the East African region. We also think the Kenyan activists can offer other African countries a blueprint for how to run such a process – and show them that it is possible.

Is there anything else beyond the situation there at the moment (something I would ask Yvonne) that I should know about the cause?

L: I think you could ask Yvonne what will happen if/when the law is removed. How will you celebrate, what will it mean for the community, and what will the next steps be to ensure equal rights for all?

Y: If same sex acts are decriminalized in Kenya, we anticipate the psychological adjustment (mental well-being) of most LGBT+ persons will increase, it is important to feel like you belong in your own country.

There will be improved access to health care, this is backed by research. Hopefully a wave of subdued and non-discriminatory legislation will prevail in the region, we are happy to set blueprints and we can now focus more in building cohesion within our communities.

Though decriminalisation might not end prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ people, at least we will be protected by the law and this is a significant shift from how things are currently.