Gay Kenyans may have some new hope, but what about in the rest of Africa?
We survey LGBT rights across the continent, where it seems a case of two steps back for every one step forward
A lesbian church leader lights pink, yellow and purple candles and passes them around to worshipers as they pray for a court decision that will mean they no longer have to live a lie.
“The Lord is in control,” she says as swaying congregants yell “victory!” and a musician shuts his eyes in prayer, his fingers dancing across a keyboard laid on a table covered with a rainbow flag.
The Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC) is a rare space where Kenya’s LGBT community can escape hostility from society, which is often reflected in hatred and vitriol from religious pulpits.
Dozens of LGBT churchgoers and their allies crammed into a tiny room on Sunday to worship ahead of Friday’s potentially historic decision by Kenya’s high court on whether laws that criminalise homosexuality are unconstitutional.
“When this law is struck down it is going to be a huge kind of liberation for us, like a burden has been taken off our shoulders,” said David Ochara, who helped found the church in 2013.
‘Police in our bedrooms’
Kenya’s colonial-era laws echo those in more than half of Africa’s countries, where homosexuality is illegal. Being gay can even lead to the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and parts of Somalia.
One section of the penal code says anyone who has “carnal knowledge ... against the order of nature” can be imprisoned for 14 years, while another could see one land in jail for five years for “indecent practices between males”.
“The law specifies ‘in public or private’, which essentially allows police to enter our bedrooms to investigate these crimes,” said Eric Gitari, the co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Council (NGLHRC), one of the petitioners.
Imani Kimiri, of the NGLHRC’s legal team, told AFP her office dealt with 15 prosecutions under the laws in 2018, but cannot recall the last conviction, slamming the process as “just a frustrating endeavour”.
In 2014, a government report to appease parliament’s anti-gay caucus reported some 600 prosecutions over three years.
However, Gitari said 70% of these were “conflated” and some turned out to be cases of child rape, bestiality or even traffic offences.
The biggest fear is the persecution that the laws allow.
“Because of the law you fear blackmail, you fear extortion, you fear violence ... because there is no law protecting you, and the law is against you,” said Arthur Owiti, who plays the keyboard in church.
Blackmailed by online dates
The NGLHRC in 2017 recorded an increase in cases where people using online dating apps such as Grindr end up being blackmailed or extorted, often by organised gangs who work with the police.
“When you get a date online you have to ask them security questions so you don’t fall into a trap,” said Owiti.
And those who are blackmailed, evicted, fired, expelled from school or assaulted over their sexual orientation, are unable to access justice because it means “confessing to a crime”, said Gitari.
While Gitari points to recent court decisions as cause for optimism, most activists agree that even if the court rules in their favour it will be tied up in appeals for the foreseeable future.
In March last year the high court banned forced anal testing of men suspected of being gay.
And in September a court ruled that Rafiki, a film about a lesbian love affair, could be screened for seven days after its initial banning.
Kenya’s decision could reverberate across the continent, where several countries are facing challenges to similar legislation.
Mozambique struck down anti-gay laws in 2015, and Angola decriminalised homosexuality in January. Botswana is expected to hear a case against its laws in March.
“The law is one of the means of changing society,” said Gitari.
“Politically there is a chance for African states to assert themselves in their grounding of justice which is inclusive of LGBT persons without necessarily having to give in to political pressure, which is external.”
During the court case, local experts testified on the history of homosexuality in Kenya – often decried as a colonial import by politicians – and also leaned on a decision decriminalising homosexuality in India last year.
Living a lie
Ochara believes Kenyans are ready to begin a discussion about homosexuality.
He has allied with other pastors and even does radio talks on grassroots radio stations – often fighting off intense homophobia to talk about the acceptance of minorities – which he believes are starting to scratch the surface of intolerance.
In the meantime, the reality for those like Arthur is that “basically you live a lie”, with brief moments of respite in safe spaces like the CAC.
He said before “CAC he attended a church where the messages every Sunday were that homosexuals, lesbians, they are not loved by God ... it was like being stabbed every time”.
In between rousing gospel music and moments of candlelit reflection, the pastors gave a security update ahead of the court case, urging congregants to avoid certain hotspots and be careful if attending the ruling.
“I know you are fabulous, but don’t make yourself an easy target – you don’t need to have rainbow feathers on your head and all that sexiness,” said Ochara.