Gay Church Prays for Historic Kenya Ruling On Decriminalizing Gay Sex

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A lesbian church leader lights pink, yellow, and purple candles and passes them around to worshippers as they pray for a court decision that will mean they no longer have to live a lie.

Gay Church Prays for Historic Kenya Ruling Decriminalizing Gay Sex

“The Lord is in control,” she says, as swaying congregants yell out “Victory!” and a musician shuts his eyes in prayer, his fingers dancing across a keyboard laid on a table covered with a rainbow flag.

The Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC) is a rare space where Kenya’s LGBT community can escape hostility from society, which is often reflected in hatred and vitriol from religious pulpits.

Dozens of LGBT churchgoers and their allies crammed into a tiny room Sunday to worship ahead of Friday’s potentially historic decision by Kenya’s High Court on whether laws that criminalise homosexuality are unconstitutional.

“When this law is struck down it is going to be a huge kind of liberation for us, like a burden has been taken off our shoulders,” said David Ochara, who helped found the church in 2013.

Gay Laws in Kenya

Kenya’s colonial-era laws echo those in more than half of Africa’s countries, where homosexuality is illegal. Being gay can even lead to the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan and parts of Somalia.

One section of the penal code says that anyone who has “carnal knowledge … against the order of nature” can be imprisoned for 14 years, while another could see one land in jail for five years for “indecent practices between males”.

“The law specifies ‘in public or private’ which essentially allows police to enter our bedrooms to investigate these crimes,” said Eric Gitari, the co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Council (NGLHRC), one of the petitioners.

Imani Kimiri of the NGLHRC’s legal team, told AFP her office dealt with 15 prosecutions under the laws in 2018, but cannot recall the last conviction — slamming the process as “just a frustrating endeavour”.

In 2014, a government report to appease parliament’s anti-gay caucus reported some 600 prosecutions over three years.

However, Gitari said 70 percent of these were “conflated” and some turned out to be cases of child rape, bestiality or even traffic offences.
The biggest fear is the persecution that the laws allow.

“Because of the law you fear blackmail, you fear extortion, you fear violence … because there is no law protecting you, and the law is against you,” said Arthur Owiti, who plays the keyboard in church.

African Precedent

Kenya’s decision could reverberate across the continent, where several countries are facing challenges to similar legislation.

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Mozambique struck down anti-gay laws in 2015, and Angola decriminalised homosexuality in January. Botswana is expected to hear a case against its laws in March.

“The law is one of the means of changing society,” said Gitari.

“Politically there is a chance for African states to assert themselves in their grounding of justice which is inclusive of LGBT persons without necessarily having to give in to political pressure, which is external.”

During the court case, local experts testified on the history of homosexuality in Kenya — often decried as a colonial import by politicians — and also leaned on a decision decriminalising homosexuality in India last year.

Ochara (co-founder of the Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC)) believes Kenyans are ready to begin a discussion about homosexuality.

He has allied with other pastors and even does radio talks on grassroots radio stations — often fighting off intense homophobia to talk about the acceptance of minorities — which he believes are starting to scratch the surface of intolerance.

In the meantime, the reality for those like Arthur is that “basically you live a lie”, with brief moments of respite in safe spaces like the CAC.

He said that before CAC he attended a church “where the messages every Sunday were that homosexuals, lesbians, they are not loved by God … it was like being stabbed every time.”

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In between rousing gospel music and moments of candlelit reflection, the pastors gave a security update ahead of the court case, urging congregants to avoid certain hotspots and be careful if attending the ruling.

“I know you are fabulous but don’t make yourself an easy target — you don’t need to have rainbow feathers on your head and all that sexiness,” said Ochara.

High Court ruling

Kenya’s High Court will rule this month on whether to repeal Section 162 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes gay sex.

In Kenya, one can be sentenced to up to 14 years for violating the law.

Activists say the case is a milestone in the fight for LGBT rights in the region.

“This is an opportunity for LGBTI people to claim their spaces,” said Brian Macharia, a gay rights activist.

“Whether we win this case or not, there is visibility that is coming by the fact that we managed to get this far at the courts, that we got a lot of Kenyans thinking and talking about this.”

Homophobic attacks are common in Kenya, as a majority of the population objects to homosexuality.



Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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