Kenya is in the grip of a full-blown existential moral panic. If we are to believe the politicians, clergy, self-proclaimed defenders of “traditional culture” and the media, the long-dreaded “gay-zombie apocalypse” is upon us, bringing hordes of “insatiable homosexuals” hungry for the impressionable brains of our children .
A Supreme Court ruling in February that the constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has sparked weeks of hysterical chest-throbs across the country, with many fearing it could open Pandora’s closet and spell the end of civilization like we who know could expedite.
Spurred on by news anchors and editors eager to serve up drama and gore in an effort to grip the public, everyone from President William Ruto to political pundits has lined up to convict the court of upholding verdicts of lower courts that the government could not legitimately refuse to register an organization calling itself the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC).
The jeremiads who dominate the airwaves and social media proclaim this as the beginning of the end.
In an interview with one of the most-watched local TV channels, Citizen TV, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of the Anglican Church of Kenya speculated — approving the anchors’ noises — that this was a sinister ploy by environmentalists to scare the world. depopulate in an effort to tackle climate change. The Department of Education has also announced it is sending chaplains to schools to prevent “infiltration” by the nefarious Western-backed LGBTQ brigade.
Meanwhile, at a parliamentary session, MP Joshua Kimilu condemned the court’s decision as a violation of Kenyan law and warned that Kenyan culture “could be ruined by the West”.
At the heart of the national hate fest is the increasing visibility and assertiveness of the country’s sexual minorities. Long suppressed by colonial-era edicts that criminalized sex “against the order of nature” and Western notions of “African culture” that causes vicious homophobia, in recent decades queer Kenyans have pushed back and refused to be pushed back into the national closet.
This included an attempt to strike down the British-imposed local versions of India’s 19th-century penal code prohibiting sexual acts “against the order of nature”—colonial code for homosexuality—as inconsistent with the 2010 Kenyan constitution, the first supreme in the land. law to be drafted, negotiated and passed entirely by Kenyans.
The NGLHRC’s registration was one of two LGBTQ rights cases to make its way through the courts. The reaction to the February ruling may in fact be an attempt to influence the second case, which more directly challenges the constitutionality of the sections of the penal code that prohibit sex “against the order of nature.”
It is important to note, as confirmed by both the Supreme Court and Supreme Court, and contrary to the claims of some, that the arcane wording of these laws does not criminalize homosexuality or homosexual relationships or even homosexual orientation.
Rather, it penalizes certain secret sexual acts that are considered “against the order of nature”, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person who commits them. For example, under the same laws, heterosexual couples could be prosecuted for practicing oral or anal sex. However, the laws are used almost exclusively to target gay people.
In May 2019, a Supreme Court upheld the laws in a complicated verdict in which judges equated sex with marriage. They stressed that the constitution’s definition of marriage as a union between people of the opposite sex required the criminalization of same-sex relationships, while arguing that the laws did not specifically target LGBTQ people, but people in general and therefore not discriminatory.
The case is before the Court of Appeal and everything indicates that it will end up at the Supreme Court. The reaction to the NGLHRC verdict can thus be seen as an attempt to intimidate the judges, to pressure them to maintain the status quo.
Interestingly, the February Supreme Court ruling merely echoes what the country’s attorney general openly argued in court in 2017. While defending the constitutionality of the colonial sex laws, he nevertheless admitted that the “Constitution protects individuals against all forms of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
The loud demands for the Supreme Court’s ruling to be reversed also ignore its role as the ultimate arbiter of what the Constitution says. In fact, many of the same voices have called on the opposition to accept another Supreme Court statement: that the president was validly elected in 2022.
In that case, they like to insist that the decision of the court and the interpretation of what the Constitution requires is final. However, when it comes to addressing the threat posed by “homoism” to the “African values” taught to us by Victorian colonialists, both sides of the political divide are united in rejecting the Supreme Court’s prerogatives.
So what comes next? Even prior to the ruling, MP Peter Kaluma had expressed his intention to introduce a law that would explicitly criminalize homosexuality with penalties including life imprisonment. He is not deterred by the court’s enforcement of the constitutional ban on discrimination.
Like the young Roper in Robert Bolt’s two-act play, A Man For All Seasons, the Kenyan elite seems eager to “make a great way through the law to go after the (gay) devil”. Churches are already proposing that parliament enact laws further restricting Kenyans’ freedom of association, singled out groups that promote illegal practices.
It is clear that the clergy like to drag the country back to the days when the Kenyan government could criminalize things like dissent and then jail people who dared to come together to challenge it. They would do well to ponder the question Thomas More asked Roper: “This land is littered with laws from coast to coast—laws of men, not of God! And if you cut them down – and you are the man for that – do you really think you can stand up straight in the wind that blows then?”
The irony of using colonial laws to defend “African culture” against the specter of white corruption is clearly lost on the anti-gay brigade, which falsely maintains that LGBTQ rights are a uniquely Western invention. But manufactured panics about European threats to African sexuality are nothing new – they were invented by whites themselves.
In her dissertation, gender studies scholar Elizabeth Williams argues that “In order to maintain their political dominance in the colony, Kenyan settlers had to find a way to present white supremacy as a boon to African prosperity. The solution to this problem lay in developing a vision of African sexuality that had to be protected from contamination by more deviant settlers.”
That vision of African sexuality grew out of Victorian imaginations of noble cruelty. “The average native is simply an immoral being, and as a general rule he becomes immoral only after contact with certain forms of civilization, both Eastern and Western,” wrote a settler in 1920.
Today’s African elites, who have inherited the colonial kingdom, are replicating the same naked assertion of power. They, too, declare themselves, and their theft and brutality, as justified by the need to protect “African” mores from Western decadence.
But while it may be tempting to dismiss these as tirades of ignorant and power-hungry bigots, whatever they are, we must remember that they have real-life implications.
They justify the oppression of thousands of Kenyans who are victims of violence, rape and imprisonment by the state and local communities. Between 2013 and 2017, more than 500 people were prosecuted under colonial laws and artistic works were banned for depicting homosexual relationships.
We must also bear in mind that by undermining the protections in the Constitution, the self-proclaimed defenders of “African culture” are endangering all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.