Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Kenne Mwikya
Earlier, in another space, I had questioned the wisdom of talking about the law and religion and how it affects the LGBTI community during cultural events such as the Storymoja Hay Festival. I contented that we should focus on cultural references to queer: read books, discuss them, talk about cultural politics and politics in general and bring in new and creative ways of thinking about possibilities that exist outside the legal terrain, outside the shadow of religious dogma. However, I did anticipate and look forward to the conversations emerging from the panel discussion and that would suffice for the time being.
The panel, consisting of a moderator, lawyers Mona Kareithi (who was also a panellist last year) and Anthony Oluoch both of whom specialise in LGBTI rights advocacy, fascinated me with interesting information about possible access to rights by queers found in the new constitution. Did you know that Art 27 (4) outlaws discrimination along the lines of dress, enabling one to dress without conforming to gender norms or gender markers? This opens an expandable space for articulating, say, the rights of transgender persons as well as gender or dress non conforming members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex community as well. This law student did not only learn about interesting and potentially progressive aspects of the law, but was also left acknowledging that the work of raising consciousness and awareness is never done.
The multi-tiered approach – a strategy the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is using in its advocacy by involving the media, other human rights and religious organisations along with legal-political ways of coming to LGBTI rights, featured heavily in question time. Someone from the Canadian High Commission wanted to know whether GALCK was working with religious organisations and the international community in its quest for LGBTI rights. It is, GALCK is actively and constantly identifying and seeking allies. There exists an organisation, Other Sheep, which works with members of the community who seek to reconcile their identity with Christianity.
Also, why aren’t GALCK and other LGBTI human rights organisations being more assertive in rights advocacy? The multi-tiered approach is a gradual process that interlinks such that one factor like involvement with the media to create a fair and objective analysis on queer issues, and another, bringing a class action suit in court, have to be in tandem for the best possible results. And since laws written a couple of centuries ago are wont to diverse legal interpretation, why not raise this at court for moral if not material gains? That would not work, Mona says, it takes patience and the wisdom of choosing the right battles. We learn that in Singapore, a move to have the courts define the term “carnal knowledge” with the aim of doing away with it and the laws within which the phrase is found led to a blowback where courts ended up coming with an interpretation that also criminalised sexual activity between two women.
Someone wanted to know about same sex marriage. No, the LGBTI rights movement in Kenya was presently interested in acquiring basic rights. The constitution, though privileging the heteronormative nuclear family, did not explicitly criminalise other kinds of family formations. Was there evidence of sexual behaviour among members of the same gender in Kenyan society? Indeed there was, ethnographic and anthropological work unearthed situational homosexuality among young Maasai men on lion hunting trips (very sexy, this) and woman marriages in at least three ethnic communities (Kisii, Kalenjin and Kikuyu).
I asked whether the panellists anticipated the portrayal of queers as “vectors of pathology” in using public health to access other rights. I think we lost chance to answer during a fleeting moment of grandstanding (I was asked to describe the phenomenon to the audience). The moderator, who worked in public health, noted how the medical and health care profession had come in providing services without prejudice. And that could also be said about Kenyan society in general: LGBTI organisations cropping up as far as Lodwar, a gay man running for the senate in Kiambu, a large presence in the media and politicians such as a former Nairobi mayor publicly anticipating the possibility of a queer and sex worker friendly city.
The moderator ended with a call to action, urging the audience to tell others about what they had learned from the event, create awareness, spread consciousness in a non-prejudiced way. When it all ended, I couldn’t believe how refreshed I was. Storymoja’s Muthoni Garland has asked for my thoughts and input on next year’s queer themed event reflective of my thoughts on creative work/thinking and a progressive cultural politics. It is an exciting offer that I willingly take up, I hope it can refresh as much as this year’s one has.