A few years ago, talking about your sexual orientation in Kenya was unheard of. Those who dared to speak openly risked being reported to police.
Or worse. Many people have been physically tortured for being open about their identity. Others have been killed. The National Police Service states that in 2012, there was an average of 36 reported cases of homophobic assault across different police stations countrywide. Now there is an average of about eight daily, but numbers could be higher as many go unreported.
The homophobic assault cases have been highest in the country’s coastal region. According to the National Police Service, there have been over 254 reported homophobic assault cases each year between 2008 to 2012, with a quarter of them including confirmed deaths.
Now the country’s newly elected Parliament is pledging massive reform, including overturning legislation that makes homesexuality punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
David Kuria, who is openly gay, is among the advocates who are beginning to see hope after decades of speaking out and being silenced. When he announced his intention to run for one of Kenya’s 47 senatorial seats in 2012, it was hard to imagine a country poised for change.
“I received death threats on my phone from unknown people. Some of those threats came from people who were affiliated with my opponents,” Kuria, now in his late forties, recounted. “I had to withdraw from the race, but it does not mean that I gave up.
“I am still active in politics and I plan to run for an elective seat in future, in the next [election]. It’s just a matter of time.”
There’s still a lot of work that has to be done and there are many unanswered questions, including when there might be an actual referendum to amend the country’s constitution, which bans homosexuality— something the Kenyan Supreme Court upheld as recently as 2019. In 2019, the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled homosexuality to be unconstitutional.
Recently there have been encouraging signs that change is coming. Last year, the country, through the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, introduced a special desk to deal with homophobia—though homosexuality still remains illegal in Kenya. Since the desk was created, the country is slowly beginning to accept and embrace members of the LGBTQ+ community. Even the number of cases of violence against LGBTQ+ people have gone down.
LGBTQ+ associations and non-governmental organizations that support homosexuality being legalized have doubled in number from 89 to about 180 in the last three years, according to the NGO Coordination Board, a government agency.
During this past August’s election, a number of people who were elected to Parliament—many of whom have a record of working with LGBTQ+ organizations—have openly expressed interest in overturning the ban. Newly elected president William Ruto signalled to CNN in a recent interview that a referendum is likely.
“When it becomes an issue, Kenyans will decide and make a choice. As it is now, we are grappling with five million Kenyans who do not have jobs,” he told CNN. His predecessor, President Uhuru Kenyatta, condemned homosexuality.
MP Agnes Wahome says the government is dedicated to examining the challenges that affect many marginalized people, including women and LGBTQ+ people
“If we are to make new laws, we have first to work closely with human rights groups to find a law that will suit them [LGBTQ+ people]. You have to also consider their political and health rights. You have to look at their basic human rights as well,” she says. “Many LGBTQ+ [people] have formed their own political parties. It is something unheard of in this part of Africa outside South Africa. The parties are waiting [on] official registration by the Registrar of Political Parties.
“It is just a matter of time before they are fully functional. Constitutionally, there is nothing wrong with forming a gay party or any freedom of association to articulate your opinions and beliefs. But, however, it is up to the entire population to decide, as a referendum will obviously be needed. We legislators can only do our job through the legislature process to bring a referendum.”
Parliament majority leader, Kimani Ichung’wah, is also promising social reforms, along with economic action.
“There is a need for a referendum after some months once the economy continues to improve,” he says, noting that could be as early as next year.
Already, a draft paper is being written by civil society and human rights groups so it can be introduced for debate in the upcoming Parliament sessions.
A “generation of young leaders who are understanding” is partially credited with the country’s changing views, said Roseline Odede, chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a government agency that advises the government and reports to several international bodies and organizations.
“A new movement is already in place and it’s good to consider the majority of the LGBTQ+ [people] voted heavily in favour of the new government. It’s just a matter of time that change will happen,” she said, adding that a majority of the leaders are ready to lend a listening ear.
Joseph Kimemia, 48, is among those who have refused to stay closeted.
Currently a farmer from Lari in central Kenya, 33 kilometres from Nairobi, he plans to run for a Member of Parliament seat in the next election. He cultivates his farm as a full-time job. He does mixed cropping and practises agroforestry on his 19-acre property land. For now, he is doing volunteer community work in his rural home as part of his campaign.
“I am doing community work, such as building water infrastructure for the people and improving road infrastructure on damaged roads and so on. I am also advocating for the poor in my constituency to get bursaries for school tuition,” says Kimemia.
His community knows of his sexual orientation and still appreciates the great work he does for them.
“I will soon be advocating for the national government to build a 46-kilometre tarmacked road connecting to Nairobi. This will reduce costs of transporting agricultural produce and quicker modes of transport, especially perishable goods like kale and spinach,” he says.
During his younger years, Kimemia experienced a lot of discrimination and mistreatment. He was beaten regularly by police, who would break into his house and ransack it for evidence.
“They would mostly come and break into my house at night, so as to attempt to catch me in a sexual act. I have been arrested arbitrarily 16 times between the ages of 20 and 37. Nowadays, nothing much happens. I am comfortable and people have been accepting me over the years,” he explains.
He has grassroots support and he says that eventually he will run for a higher electoral seat.
“I am confident I can win. I still have five years to build myself, and my sexual orientation should not be a hindrance. Thousands of people are slowly accepting me. It will be my first time to run for an elective political office,” Kimemia says.
He is also a landlord in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where he rents out five three-bedroom apartments.
“With the money I earn, I use it to help the less needy in my rural home and [to] care for my elderly parents. Yes, I have a partner. We have been together now for about five years. He has been supportive of me emotionally and spiritually,” he says.
Kuria plans to launch his own political party in a few months.
He is happy that the newly elected parliament is hoping to introduce a new law to legalize homosexuality, but he says that the country may need to go through a referendum to amend the constitution.
“A lot has changed since 2012 in Kenya, and people’s attitudes toward homosexuality have also changed. We will need to go into a referendum to amend our constitution for a new law to be in place. A lot of the newly elected legislators actually support the rights of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Kuria.
He adds that some of the people who previously had a bad attitude toward his sexual orientation have changed their views and begun to accept him.
“They have realized that I am myself and [have] nothing to hide. They have also begun to accept my opinions and what I stand for,” he says.
He plans to run for a gubernatorial seat in 2027 and he has not ruled out running for the presidency that year. But he says that there are still a few years to get himself together and plan.
Kuria will vie for one of the 47 gubernatorial seats in the country, the elective seat in Kiambu County, which borders the city of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
“I just decided to take a short time to reflect on my future ambitions. I will be back and I am not discouraged. I am a better and more focused person,” he says.
President Ruto told CNN in a recent interview that a time will come for Kenyans to decide on the issue. According to Wahome, they will look at the challenges affecting women and LGBTQ+ people and make new legislation.
“If we are to make new laws, we have first to work closely with human rights groups to find a law that will suit [LGBTQ+ people]. You have to also consider their political and health rights. You have to look at their basic human rights as well,” she says.
Wahome, who is also a lawyer, says that it is something that will take time as the constitution will need to be amended. But she remains positive on the matter.
Already, a draft paper is being written so it can be forwarded for debate in the upcoming sessions of the current parliament.
The paper is being written by civil society and human rights groups that hope to pave the way for improved rights for LGBTQ+ people in the country.
“Despite homosexuality being illegal, lesbianism is actually not against the law. There is nowhere in the constitution that criminalizes lesbianism or any specific law. Lesbians can marry, though culturally it is something that has never happened so far,” says Florence Kajuju, a Kenyan lawyer.
According to Ichung’wah, a referendum will have to wait for the economy to overcome its current recession.
“It is evident that the economy is in a recession at the moment, and inflation levels are at an historical high of 22 percent. Also, it is good to remember that we are [economically] recovering from COVID-19 local and global restrictions.
“But yes, there is a need for a referendum after some months once the economy continues to improve,” says Ichung’wah, who is an economist and also chaired the parliamentary budget committee during the previous Parliament. He advises that a referendum could work out well sometime next year.
“Apart from economic reforms that will be put in place, we will also see how we can improve on social reforms,” says Ichung’wah.
According to LGBTQ+ associations and human rights organizations based in Kenya, there are about 200,000 LGBTQ+ people living in the country. However, the number could even be much higher as most people are scared to be open about their sexual orientation.
“Many are scared to be victimized or [to face] other consequences associated with physical and verbal violence. We are yet to reach the situation of acceptance equal to that of South Africa, it will happen as times are changing rapidly in Kenya.
“In a few years, the LGBTQ+ community [will be] beginning to be accepted by mainstream society as a whole. But [there is] still some work to do,” says Odede.
She says that they are working on a draft paper together with LGBTQ+ groups. The paper will finally be handed to the relevant government departments, including the executive and legislature for consideration of a new proposed law. The newly elected 13th Parliament since Kenya’s 1963 independence has a number of elected members who have expressed interest in legalizing homosexuality. Some have worked closely with LGBTQ+ organizations. Many also have backgrounds in legal and human rights.
“We have a generation of young leaders who are understanding. We will work closely with them to make sure there is a new law in place.
“We attempted in 2019 to make the rights of LGBTQ+ [people] to be recognized, but the Supreme Court ruled homosexuality unconstitutional. But this time, we are coming back in a major way, as we are more organized,” says Odede.
The draft paper will help make a new law and possibly take the country into a referendum. It will be the second referendum for Kenya since 2010, when the current constitution was passed.
Constitutional experts hope that Kenya will join South Africa as the second country that will recognize the rights of LGBTQ+ people should a new law be put into place.
“We plan to start a public awareness program by promoting civic education as [soon as] the time to prepare for a referendum ticks. It is required that public participation be part of the process,” Odede says.
“There is more need to educate the police on the proposed law and how to deal with minorities. This will be done as we get closer to the constitutional moment.
“The need to involve the public is becoming [more] important by the day. We will also advise the government to form a task force,” she adds.
According to the newly elected parliament speaker Moses Wetangula, the bill will be debated once it comes up in the Parliament.
“We will welcome any bill that is forwarded to us. We will then debate its merits and demerits. We will do it as a newly elected legislature and we will not disappoint or please everyone,” says Wetangula, who was once Kenya’s foreign minister.