Challenges and Opportunities for Equality in Kenya

Rainbow at Masaai Mara, a reserve in Kenya. Siddharth Maheshwari, CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

THE ISSUE of LGBT rights is a major concern in Kenya. A section of Kenyan society is conservative and frowns upon the entire idea of the gay community. It considers gay relations taboo and against Kenyan morals and culture. According to Mbita, a leading African theologian, Africans are notoriously religious, and religion is so pervasive in the way of life that it is embedded in the local language. The impact of this religiosity means that most young people who identify as gay are unable to fully live their lives as gay. Therefore they hide this extremely important aspect of their lives from family members who are religious and conservative.

Discriminatory laws have continued to undermine the LGBT rights in Kenya. Sections 162 (a and c) and 165 of the Kenyan Penal Code, CAP. 163 (revised edition 2012[2010]) are often used against the LGBT people. Section 162 states that: “any person who; (a) has carnal knowledge with any person against the order of nature or, (c) permits a male person to have carnal knowledge with him or her against the order of nature is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.”

Section 165 states that “any male person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male person, whether in public or private, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for five years.”

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), believe that Section 162 subsection (a) and (c) and Section 165 discriminate against LGBT people. Petition 234 of 2016 to the High Court of Kenya sought for the declaration of these laws as unconstitutional but it was unsuccessful.  The GALCK believes that a decision by the High Court to declare Sections 162 (a) and (c) and 165 unconstitutional would have been a big step for LGBT people. There would have been an increase in gay people coming out and advancement towards equal rights and the acceptance of gay people in the Kenyan society.

As much as sections 162 (a) and (c) and 165 affects lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, they equally affect transgender and intersex people. Unfortunately, most Kenyans assume that transgender and intersex persons are homosexual or bisexual, which is not necessarily true. Only a few people have been charged under Sections 162 (a) and (c) and 165, but these laws are used to justify violence and discrimination against LGBT people.

Gay people in Kenya, in an effort to fight for their rights, continue to face various challenges. Some of these challenges include victimization, abuse, arrests, attacks, extortion, rape, insults and isolation from family. The COVID-19 period saw a rise in cases of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in Kenya and LGBT people were victims. GALCK reported up to ten attacks per month on LGBT people during the pandemic. However, many victims fail to report cases to the authorities and seek medical services for fear of stigmatization in these facilities.

LGBT people are hesitant to seek essential healthcare services like the HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services. Accessing these services is a major challenge, when there are threats in form of homophobic mobs in clinics and HIV/AIDS workshops. Forced anal examinations among gays and ‘corrective’ rape among lesbians is also another challenge facing LGBT people and a violation of their privacy.

LGBT sex workers suffer rape and abuse at the hands of their clients, police and County Government law enforcement officers. However, they cannot seek help from the authorities as these authorities use discriminatory laws to threaten LGBT people and even extort money from them. LGBT refugees have been attacked and threatened but they rarely report such cases to the police. The police threaten them with arrests unless bribes are paid. Congregants have been suspended from some religious institutions for identifying as gays while others have been shunned by their families.

Despite all the challenges facing LGBT rights advocacy in Kenya, it is not all gloom. Some progress has been made by the civil society organizations and the media in promoting LGBT rights. This has seen a rise in the number of Kenyan citizens coming out publicly as gay. An example is when a member of a well-known rock band came out earlier this month. He told The Standard newspaper that the solo single he had released was a true representation of the culture within the queer community that he is part of. A former BBC journalist, in a TED talk earlier this year, publicly came out and stated that she was gay and unique and that that was her truth.

There is an increase in acceptance by young people who appreciate gay people coming out. They consider coming out as a symbol of courage and being true to oneself. There is also an organization, Bold Network Africa, based in Nairobi whose objective is to educate Africans about the  LGBT community through films, documentaries and training.

Although religion is associated with conservative beliefs, some religious organizations have made bold steps that positively impact the cause. According to Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV/AIDS (KELIN), in 2021 the Methodist Church joined some of the largest global religious denominations to allow same-sex marriages, after voting to allow gay couples to get married on its premises. The Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC) in Kenya also openly welcomes LGBT people of faith to explore their faith in an affirming environment. This is a bold move by religious institutions in an attempt to promote acceptance of gay people in Kenya.

Kenya is considered a progressive African nation, but it is still a society that has rigid views based on religion. While the civil society and the media have been vocal in promoting LGBT rights, religious organizations, parliament, and the courts have been hesitant. The frontline for LGBT rights advocacy should therefore be in the churches, mosques, parliament and in the courts.


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