Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta made his strongest statement to date in support of basic rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, in an October 18 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. For the first time, he publicly condemned violence and “witch hunts” against LGBT people. But his pick-and-choose approach to rights shows there’s still a way to go in the struggle for LGBT equality in Kenya.
Kenyatta told Zakaria, in response to a question on “gay rights,” that he would “not allow people to persecute any individuals… [or] to beat them [or] torture them.” This commitment is laudable, as was his statement that constitutional rights extend to all Kenyans. “Every individual has a right to be protected by the law, and that’s stated in our constitution,” he said.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch and PEMA Kenya documented abuses against LGBT people in coastal Kenya, including mob attacks, physical and sexual assaults, and arbitrary arrests. We argued in our report that the primary issue affecting LGBT Kenyans is violence, and we are pleased that President Kenyatta concurs. His comments echo the African Commission’s Resolution 275, condemning violence against LGBT people.
But the “witch hunts” Kenyatta has condemned are an unfortunate reality – most recently seen in Kwale County in February, when a public anti-gay uproar compelled dozens of LGBT people to flee their homes.
Two Kwale men have been charged with alleged “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” and face trial. Police plucked them from a bar on the basis of rumors that they were gay, and subjected them to forced anal exams – a form of torture – to “prove” their sexual orientation.
And this is where Kenyatta doesn’t go far enough. Isn’t the police treatment of these two men a violation of the very constitutional rights that Kenyatta says are inalienable?
Kenyatta said that although gay people should not be “persecuted,” Kenya isn’t ready to “legalize” same-sex conduct, arguing that for most Kenyans, “this is not an issue that they are going to put at the center. They have more pressing issues.” Indeed, Kenyans have said in opinion polls that they are far more concerned about day-to-day survival – including access to health care, education, and basic security – than about the legal status of LGBT Kenyans.
But this is precisely a reason to stop prosecuting consensual same-sex conduct, not to criminalize it. In a state plagued by security issues ranging from carjackings to cattle rustling to terrorism, don’t the police have more pressing priorities than peeping through Kenyans’ bedroom windows?