Kenya's long, painful road to gay equality

Homosexual acts are still illegal even if being gay is not

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Three years on, Immah Reid, a Kenyan gay rights activist, is still haunted by a young girl’s text. The girl had been locked in her bedroom in a Nairobi suburb for three days. Her mother had sent in men to rape her, and her little sister was forced to listen to her screams. “I don’t want you to come and get me because they will kill me,” she wrote. “I just want you to know.”

The girl, whom Ms Reid never heard from again, was a lesbian. In an all too common occurrence, her family believed that she could be “cured” through sex with a man in a practice known as “corrective rape”. Some of the girls subjected to such an ordeal never get over it, and end up taking their own lives.

Such is the attitude towards homosexuality in Kenya that many never come out, sometimes turning to religion for answers, sometimes taking a husband and having children.

And yet it is also the country where a little over a month ago, the High Court ordered the government to allow the official registration of a gay rights non-governmental organisation, a landmark ruling that followed years of official stonewalling of pro-homosexual groups seeking legal recognition and status.

Eric Gitari, leader of the gay rights organisation that has won legal recognition

Eric Gitari, who heads the Nairobi-based National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the group in question, said he was “thrilled” by the decision, which he described as “very strong”. He added: “It is saying that religion and morality cannot be used as a limitation to the application of rights.”

The government, however, is appealing the court’s ruling, and Mr Gitari said he is preparing to “fight all the way to the Supreme Court”.

While homosexual acts are illegal in Kenya – being gay is not – the law is only occasionally invoked. A case in Mombasa, where two men were charged with sodomy, is a rare example. Attitudes in Kenya, however, still lag the legislative process, and the April ruling drew swift condemnation, not only from the Anglican Church, which described it as “naïve and inconsiderate”, but from the country’s Deputy President, William Ruto, who told a church congregation that “we have no rooms for gays and those others”.

Discrimination begins at an early age, usually at school where even homosexual feelings are punished with exclusion. Ms Reid was expelled in her teens for sending a love letter to another girl. “It’s the most scary time of your life. Your parents are ashamed of you. Your school humiliates you,” she said. Coming out means “the end of your education, support system. You have to be able to walk away from that life”.


For a time, she tried to be like other girls, and even has an eight-year-old son, who lives with her mother, who has never broached the subject of her daughter’s sexuality. “She is one of the most intelligent people I know. The fact that she doesn’t speak about it means she must have a response so bitter it would break me,” Ms Reid said.

Discussion about homosexuality is increasingly entering the public discourse, however, and activists say that attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. It is in the poorest and most conservative communities where gays and lesbians face the hardest time, often evicted from their homes and vulnerable to violent attacks.

“Visibility is a double-edged sword,” said Anthony Oluoch, a gay activist in Nairobi. “When confronted by something they do not understand, the first reaction is fear. As much as we need visibility to see that we are part of this society, that also stirs emotions and violence.”

Changing attitudes, activists admit, could take years in Kenya. Many just want to live and let live. Homosexuality “is something we want to decriminalise, but it’s not about making it legal, it’s about letting it be”, said Mr Oluoch.