Controversy erupted in both Kenya and the United States upon President Obama’s recent visit to Nairobi. In a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama voiced his support of LGBT+ Kenyans. (6) Disapproval blossomed on both ends of the political spectrum, with anti-gay backlash from the Kenyan government and a general questioning of Obama’s motives. Many questions are raised by discourse surrounding this issue. What attitudes and myths perpetuate homophobia within Kenyan culture and government? What role, if any, should western powers take in promoting LGBT+ rights abroad?
Obama’s statement at the conference was made in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. While his comments were prompted by a question, Obama had previously expressed his intent to speak out of LGBT+ issues (6). In the conference, he made the following statement: "I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation.” (4)
Obama is by no means the first person to promote LGBT+ rights in Kenya. Groups run both by and for Kenyan individuals have existed for decades and have recently made great strides in terms of rights. For one thing, representation is far more tangible; in 2012, David Kuria Mbote became the first openly gay man to run for office in Kenya. (3) While his sexuality as well as his political stances made him virtually unelectable, the fact that Mbote ran in the first place is hugely symbolic of Kenyan political and social change. Optimism also arose when the Kenyan High Court ruled that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission should be allowed to legally register; previously, they had been told that they needed to find a less explicit name. (5)
As a whole, however, Kenya’s position on LGBT+ rights is not supportive, and the reaction from the Kenyan government to Obama’s statement was decidedly non-plussed. Kenyan President Kenyatta responded to Obama’s comments by saying “There are some things that we must admit we don't share-- our culture, our societies don't accept. So it's very difficult for us to be able to impose that which they themselves do not accept. This is why I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people." (4) The general idea held by the Kenyan government, as well as many other African governments, is that homosexuality is a western issue. A poll done by the Pew Research Center found that 98% of Kenyans and Nigerians found homosexuality to be inexcusable (1), and a popular attitude stands that being gay is unAfrican. (2)
Why, then, are pro-LGBT+ activists unhappy with Obama’s statement? The answer is nuanced. One opinion is that such comments were poorly informed in the midst of such a complicated political movement. Additionally, many people focused on what was left unsaid. Rather than addressing the many horrifying policies in which the United States is complicit, Obama chose to focus on an issue much less relevant to his position. With the government’s response in mind, it also seems that such a public message may have ultimately resulted in more negative than positive attention for LGBT+ Kenyans. (6) He may have even unwittingly upheld the “western fad” stereotype of homosexuality. Perhaps the burden of addressing LGBT+ rights in Kenya would be better left to Kenyans themselves.
"Attitudes Toward Homosexuality in African Countries." Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., 12 Nov. 2006. Web. 30 Aug. 2015. (1)
"It Is Time: The Need to Rethink Homosexuality in Kenya and Africa." Africa Is a Country. N.p., 30 July 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015. (2)
"Kenya Political Campaign Puts Gay Taboo in Spotlight." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 22 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Aug. 2015. (3)
Levine, Sam. "Obama Speaks Out For LGBT Rights In Kenya." Huffington Post. Huffpost Politics, 25 July 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015. (4)
"LGBT Activist: Kenya More Tolerant, but Still Not Safe." VOA. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2015. (5)