Fighting for rights without taking to the streets – the battle for LGBTI rights in Kenya

On a recent work trip to Kenya, Shape History’s Strategy Lead, Lewis Parker, met with the National Gay and Lesbian Commission of Kenya (NGLHRC) to learn about the importance of using the judiciary together with communications advocacy to produce change and protect LGBTI citizens.

Authors: Lewis Parker
  • Reading time: 9 min.
  • Posted on: September 7, 2019

I often find myself travelling to new countries to conduct research and run strategy workshops with work. In early April, I travelled out to Nairobi, Kenya, to work with one of our partners – an international human rights NGO – on an upcoming campaign. As I like to do regardless of where I’m travelling, I picked up a newspaper as soon as I arrived – ‘We’re at crossroads on sticky issue of homosexuality’ was the first article I saw. It was by Bishop David Oginde and was reacting to a recent ruling by the Kenyan Court of Appeal that allowed an LGBTQ organisation to be registered as a legitimate NGO. 

As a gay man living in London, I’m very lucky. As a white gay man living in London I’m even luckier. Even though there are numerous issues that we as a community face – from homophobic attacks, to youth homelessness,  to being afraid to hold your loved one’s hand – it’s easy to feel distant from the frontline struggle for LGBTI rights. 

Travelling can often be a stark reminder of the rights we are lucky to take for granted. After reading Oginde’s article, I decided to reach out to the LGBTI organisation that was mentioned to try and arrange a meeting. I wanted to learn more about their struggle for LGBTI rights and challenge my western viewpoints of campaigning and activism. 

Sentiment around homosexuality in Kenya

According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 96% of Kenyan residents believe that homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept. Not only this, but 2011 research on Kenyan LGBTI people showed that among those who came out or were outed to their family members, 89% reported that they had been disowned. 

Many of these anti-gay laws were introduced to Africa by western colonialists. Before colonialism, many traditional cultures throughout the continent were tolerant of different sexualities and gender relations.

Kenyan courts – successes and limitations in the fight for gay rights 

The Kenyan court system has been one of the main ways in which progress has being made. The courts have previously allowed for the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to be established as a legal NGO under the new Kenyan constitution.  In 2018, a film director sued the government after her LGBTI film film, Rafiki  – which tells the story of love between two young women – was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board.  Subsequently, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban. Similarly in 2018, a Court of Appeal in Mombassa ruled that forced anal examinations on people who are accused of same-sex relations are  unconstitutional.  

These rulings have all strengthened the future of advancing LGBTI rights as they reinforce the understanding that the Kenyan constitution applies to all, regardless of their sexual orientation. Yet despite these successes, the court has also had its limitations. In May 2019, there was a lot of hope that homosexuality could be legalised as part of a ruling on a long-running fight that had been taking place in the courts.

Kenya’s LGBTI community aimed to overturn sections of a colonial-era law that criminalisse same sex relations. To the disappointment of many, a panel of judges determined that the courts would uphold the law. 

The rainbow of hope that is the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

On the penultimate day of my visit to Kenya, I met with the NGLHRC at their offices in Nairobi. Upon walking into their office, I immediately felt uplifted and inspired. Colour is the first thing that hits you – there’s so much colour. Walls covered in red, yellow, green, and orange. Pride flags hanging by the windows, hundreds of painted hand prints on one of the walls, and numerous posters. It was a vibrant, living, community centre, united around grassroots activism. 

The proceeding discussion with the team left me feeling even more inspired – young, inspiring advocates who effervess passion. They focus on legal aid and strategic litigation to increase equality and inclusion among sexual minorities. The main bastion of their work has been in using the courts to uphold the constitution. By having time and resources to do this, they can offer free legal services for anyone who finds themselves violated based on their sexuality. They’ve even worked on training and engaging with police officers and magistrates. However, the main challenge is in the sheer numbers they can reach in order to make a tangible difference. 

Of course, grassroots activism happens throughout the country, although it isn’t visible to the majority of the public. The commission has mobilised these networks and organisations to create a strong community and a clear sense of direction. They also noted the role of social media, and how, over the years, social media has become a powerful tool in opening up channels of communication and galvanising support. 

Fighting for your rights without taking to the streets

With the NGLHRC, we also spoke around advocacy, protest, and public engagement. This aspect of campaigning comes naturally to me but I haven’t seen these tactics in relation to LGBTI rights in Kenya. In the West,  people regularly take to the streets to have their voices heard and demand equality. Similarly, when people think of LGBTI rights, most people’s mind’s immediately go to the birth of the gay liberation movement with the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City. 

In Kenya, it’s a little different. 

The fight for LGBTI rights does not take place on the streets. The battle predominantly comes in the form of using the judiciary. Protest as a right in Kenya is something that is often very controversial and is often associated with criminal behaviour. It’s rare that protests are covered in the media without reporting violence, or labelling protestors as revolutionary hooligans. Not only this, but Kenya is a politically divided society. Police use excessive force on protestors, including the use of live bullets and firing tear gas into crowds in order to disperse demonstrators. In  2017, police killed at least 33 people and injured hundreds more in Nairobi in response to protests around the general election. The violence that typically comes with protest – combined with the fact that 96% of Kenyans are against homosexuality – together with the rise of hatred against LGBTI citizens in the media, means that public protests are impossible in Kenya for safety reasons.

Despite this, with the recent court ruling against LGBTI citizens,  it will be vitally important in the coming months and years to begin scaling up the advocacy efforts to change hearts and minds. It’s also important to note that it is not just about taking to the airwaves and trying to get the message across that it’s the right thing to do. This tactic does not and will not work. 

When former U.S. President Barack Obama visited Kenya in 2015 and advocated for decriminalisation of homosexuality, his counterpart rebutted Obama’s points. He said that gay rights are of no importance to the people and Republic of Kenya; that they are a non-issue as they do not align with Kenyan culture.  Obama’s comments caused the Kenyan airwaves to be taken up by politicians, bishops, and activists all asserting the same message. This created fear for the LGBTI community, increased negative communications in society, and led to a rise in LGBTI violence. A community center and health clinic in Nairobi called HOYMAS that helps young men with HIV/AIDS and STIs reported that visitors dropped by around 90% in the weeks before and after Obama’s arrival.

So, how can Kenyan’s fight for their rights without taking to the streets?

Compelling storytelling.

To drive future progress what needs to happen is population-wide behavioural change. The commission have begun scaling up their advocacy efforts using social media. They’ve been running campaigns  such as their #LoveIsHuman to raise awareness, create conversations, and reduce homophobia. Panels on TV have also helped where LGBTI advocates are able to explain their reasonings and motivations in a simple and relatable way. 

The most effective way to change behaviours is through powerful storytelling that creates emotion and humanises LGBTI Kenyans.

This will help bridge the gap between the current way LGBTI individuals are represented and spoke about in the media, compared to who they actually are. By using storytelling and adapting it to a local context, we can hold an audience’s attention. Personal stories are an excellent way to break down key advocacy messaging to provide context and understanding, allowing audiences to relate to the issue more easily. Finally, stories are one of the most powerful ways of influencing and persuading as they are able to prompt an emotional response which helps the audience connect with the message. 

It’s in our human nature to want to hear how a story ends, so let’s make sure this one ends exactly how we want it to.

Shape History is a social impact communications agency. We nurture purpose-led institutions, charities, campaigning groups and social impact leaders with strategic design and communication to accelerate social impact. 

Get in touch if you would like to work with us.

Want to connect with the Shape History team?

Get in touch today