Against Legal Challenges, Grantees in Kenya Are Expanding LGBTQI+ Acceptance

Living as an LGTBQI+ person in Kenya has always meant living under threat — often from your own community and certainly from the laws of the country, which makes same-sex relationships illegal. But AJWS grantees, led by truly inspiring activists, are creating change city by city.

Esther “Essy” Adhiambo is one powerful activist at the very center of that shift. Essy grew up as a rural herder; years later, now an activist who’d come out as a lesbian, she moved to the conservative and religiously mixed (Muslim, Christian and Hindu) coastal city of Mombasa when LGBTQI+ people were literally being beaten in the streets; preachers were inciting this violence from their pulpits, and police couldn’t be counted to defend them. In some cases, the police actually joined in on the abuse. Essy was horrified at the persecution that she saw, and she set out to make a difference.

Esther “Essy” Adhiambo, photo by Jonathan Torgovnik.

First Essy went to work at Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved Kenya (PEMA), a grantee working to reduce stigma, improve access to health services and reshape Kenya’s laws and culture to welcome LGBTQI+ people. At PEMA, Essy led a program to transform clergy and police into allies by introducing them to LGBTQI people, after they got to know them first as individuals. When they formed bonds, and learned face-to-face about the struggles of this community, something clicked – many former abusers finally saw the humanity they shared with these LGBTQI+ people and the larger community. The program was such a success, AJWS supported Essy to expand it.

A few years later, Essy founded Initiative for Equality and Non Discrimination (INEND) to continue to tackle anti-LGBTQI+ violence and persecution head on. AJWS helped her replicate the model she used at PEMA, and she found immense success in an unlikely place: with the city’s “boda boda” motorbike taxi drivers, who attacked LGBTQI people in the past. Essy worked with these men, often one by one, to change their attitudes. Today, throngs of boda boda drivers are not only tolerant of the LGBTQI+ people; they are some of the community’s staunchest allies. As Essy says, “Bring them to the table, sit with them, educate and inform them,” and change can be achieved.

Over the past several years, our grantees have brought that movement for change nationwide, engaging in advocacy to challenge laws that undermine the human rights of LGBTQI+ people.

Members of PEMA. Photo by Christine Han.

The path to equality for LGBTQI+ people in Kenya has been filled with both progress and setbacks in recent years. In March, 2019, the Court of Appeal in Nairobi upheld a 2015 decision to accept National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) as a recognized organization, protected by the same laws that govern all non-profits. In a similarly positive decision, Kenya’s Attorney General established a task force in March 2019 to evaluate the needs of the country’s intersex people. AJWS grantee Jinsiangu worked closely with the task force to create the report — which recommends that Kenya move to legally recognize intersex people as a third sex and ensure they are counted in the upcoming census, as well as to do more to “safeguard the interests of intersex people.”

Two months later, in May 2019, a coalition including several AJWS grantees helped build a growing social movement, challenging articles of Kenya’s penal code that criminalize sexual relationships between consenting same sex adults. People can spend up to 14 years in jail simply for loving whom they love. The campaign to strike down this law spread across Kenya, connecting and uniting this persecuted community in an incredibly powerful way.

Still, despite national and international opposition to these archaic laws, on May 24th, 2019, Kenya’s High Court ruled to uphold them. Headlines across the world decried the country’s disregard for the rights of LGBTQI people. Immediately, AJWS grantee partners and AJWS staff declared that the fight for equality in Kenya is far from finished.

AJWS Grantees await the court decision. Photo by Rhateel Photography.

The day after the ruling, on May 25, Kevin Mwachiro, the board chair of AJWS grantee Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) published the powerful “Gay Rights in Kenya: Why our Fight Isn’t Over” in the BBC, in which he argued that merely presenting the case to Kenya’s High Court is, in itself, a victory.

“The pain of the loss stung… People started streaming out of the court room, glassy-eyed with rainbow flags draped over their drooping shoulders. But there was still fight in us. Maybe not today, but the fact we took on a system that is slow and scared to change is a victory in itself,” he writes. “There will still be plenty of social and religious stigma to face, and there will still be the potential for violence. There will still be various forms of discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. But there will also be a movement championing the rights of our community, and demanding a more inclusive Kenya. To my 16-year-old self who thought he was alone in his feelings: I want to tell him that the battle for self and for same love, is far from over.”

As AJWS’s Kenya program officer Gitahi Githuku wrote the day of the ruling, “This is indeed a difficult day for all of us. My feeling right now just after the ruling in Nairobi… if you want to see perseverance, look in my eyes right now. We shall pursue this to the highest possible court.

We know Kenya is on a path towards equality. Our AJWS community has seen this change in person. In late 2018, PEMA met with AJWS supporters — and AJWS board member Bill Resnick and his husband, Michael Stubbs were proud attendees. When everyone introduced themselves, Bill and Michael said they were married — and the room erupted in cheers. The simple outpouring of joy and support suggests one thing: change is coming. And the Kenyan courts will need to catch up.