Anti-gay Kenyans fear upcoming Obama visit

William Ruto, deputy president of Kenya. (Photo courtesy of
William Ruto, deputy president of Kenya. (Photo courtesy of

Kenya was already in a tizzy about LGBTI rights even before people’s attention turned to the upcoming visit of President Obama.

The High Court had ruled on April 24 that the government had no right to refuse recognition to a law-abiding organization just because it advocates for  the human rights of LGBTI people. Government officials squawked, appealed the ruling, and proposed legislation to allow for legal discrimination against LGBTI rights organizations.

In Kenya, same-sex intimacy is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Although that law is basically unenforced, it underpins widespread disdain for LGBTI people in Kenyan society.

In May, deputy president William Ruto told a church congregation that in Kenya “we have no room for gays and those others.”

Binyavanga Wainana (Photo courtesy of
Binyavanga Wainana (Photo courtesy of

Popular, openly gay Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana responded to him on Twitter, “Kenya’s deputy president joins an important tradition by Africans in power to spread hate in church on a Sunday.”

In June, member of parliament Irungu Kangata demanded that the judiciary explain recent aid to improve Kenyan courts — a total of 167 million Kenyan shillings (US $1.7 million) from the United Nations Development Program and the Ford Foundation, organizations that “openly support gay rights.” He suggested that the donations influenced the High Court’s ruling in April.

On July 5, five legislators, including Justin Muturi, the speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly, told church goers at a fundraising event that Obama should not be allowed to bring up the issue of gay rights during his visit, which is part of a July 24-28 trip to Africa. One legislator said that Obama should be ejected from the Kenyan parliament if he mentions gay rights, the Nation newspaper reported.

The Obamas pose with His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya.
The Obamas pose with His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya, during the United States/Africa summit in Washington, D.C., in August 2014. (White House photo)

On July 6, the White House announced that Obama would not back away from the subject of LGBTI rights when he visits Kenya.

“I’m confident that the president will not hesitate to make clear that the protection of basic fundamental human rights in Kenya is also a priority and consistent that we hold dear here in the United States of America,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

In the midst of these debates, one Kenyan landlord evicted a gay couple and told them to “go wait for your Obama,” Gay Star News reported.

Denis Nzioka
Denis Nzioka

“This is the real world of living in a homophobic society,” said Kenyan LGBTI rights activist Denis Nzioka. “The anti-LGBT crusade is still very much here.”

“There have been more beatings, evictions and attacks when public discourse focuses on the community. It gets heightened, and it will only increase momentum as Obama’s visit gets closer,” Nzioka said.

Also on July 6, the Council of Elders of Kenya’s Kikuyu people threatened to throw rotten eggs at Obama if he discusses LGBTI rights during his visit.  Senior council member Samuel Thuita said that rotten eggs were the response that Britons made when Kenyans sought independence in 1962. Thuita said:

“The founding father of the nation, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, was pelted with rotten eggs in Britain for only agitating for our independence. I will mobilise and lead every member of the council, including women and the youth, and Kenyans in general to throw rotten eggs at Obama if he dares introduce the gay and lesbian debate.”

Although the rhetoric has heated up recently, Kenya is often still seen as a relatively safe place for LGBTI people.  Hundreds of LGBTI Ugandans have fled there for safety.  One sign of moderation: Only 35 people showed up for a planned anti-homosexuality protest on July 6, called by the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya.

At least in terms of political posturing, same-sex marriage is hot-button issue in Kenya, even though LGBTI rights activists are not pushing for it.

Nzioka said:

“Obama is not coming here to propose same-sex marriage.  From his White House statement, I expect he’ll speak on broader issues of human rights and in that might come respect for sexual orientation. How he frames that is Obama’s job. He won’t promote same-sex marriage, I’m sure.

“If he does get very specific about LGBTI human rights issues, people would be very angry that he’s coming here to promote gays. They’ll say they need US aid, not gays.

“If he mentions it, it is good to speak about LGBTI human rights issues. But if he doesn’t mention it at all, then the haters will have egg on their face. We will have to see what happens next.

“Whatever happens, I hope there is no risk to the lives of LGBTI Kenyans by adding fuel to the fire.”

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


Leave a Reply
  1. Listen Kenyans…I will make you a deal. I will ask President Obama not to say anything about gay marriage if you will promise me not to ask him for any financial aid or support for your defense. Deal?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Ugandan trans, sex-worker activists target HIV

To Kenyan officials: Stop gay-bashing; it boosts AIDS