Keguro Macharia provides an historical overview of LGBTI activism in Kenya which he states has taken place through “a strategy of association rather than an articulation of identity” specifically through health work and activism around HIV/AIDs. However as he points out this strategy has it’s problems…
By allying themselves to health work and activism around HIV/AIDS, and serving underserved populations, especially men who have sex with men (MSM), LGBTI activists have been able to raise funds and demonstrate their commitment to Kenya’s health and future. Donors have also found it easier to fund HIV/AIDS activism as opposed to more direct LGBTI causes, thus escaping scrutiny from government agencies.
While health work is important, it risks allying LGBTI practices and identifications predominantly with HIV/AIDS. Approached through the lens of pathology, LGBTI identity and identification might be seen as a vector for pathology: LGBTI populations spread HIV/AIDS; as caretakers for the sick: LGBTI activists nurse the sick; and as mourners for the dying and dead: LGBTI activists grieve for the dead. While these roles are important, they risk marginalizing LGBTI activism from broader national conversations.
Simultaneously, this focus on HIV/AIDS makes invisible other kinds of illegal actions against LGBTI people in Nairobi, who are often subjected to blackmail and other forms of harassment. Many of these illegal activities remain unreported or are carried out by law enforcement. The LGBTI community has yet to find effective ways to make existing laws work in their favor.
Keguro is also critical of a new initiative towards decriminialisation across Africa which requires of “internationalization’ of the struggle through external interventions such as in the case recently Malawi case of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga who were pardoned.
Kuria is right to the extent that non-interference has been the dominant model of inter-African interaction. Even in the most egregious abuses of human rights, African organizations, from the now defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the equally moribund African Union (AU), have been unwilling or unable to intervene in member state affairs.
However, Kuria’s strategy also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between the local and the global in the arena of human rights. Although the global might be the stage on which human rights are enacted and, ideally, upheld, global forces cannot enforce those rights in any sustained manner in any sovereign nation without taking away that nation’s sovereignty. Indeed, Kuria seems to be calling for a new rights-based imperialism, in which the object will be to protect sexual minorities against their sovereign nations.
More crucially, Kuria’s call reveals an ongoing weakness within LGBTI activism in Kenya. To date, LGBTI activists have not been able to articulate their claims within the frame of Kenya’s histories, presents, and futures. While they have certainly invoked pre-colonial paradigms in which some ethnic groups recognized same-sex relationships and welcomed transgendered individuals, LGBTI activists have not embedded their activism within Kenya’s anti-colonial struggles, nationalist pasts and presents, and future aspirations.