‘I Am Scared’ LGBTIQ and Abortion Activists Respond to Kenya's Elections
Speaking exclusively to Byline Times, LGBTIQ and pro-choice activists express their fears for a William Ruto presidency in Kenya. Sian Norris reports
“I am scared,” says Marylize Biubwa, a non-binary lesbian activist living in Nairobi. “Ruto has a history of making homophobic statements, he is a Christian fundamentalist who says he was prayed into power. We know how homophobia and religion relate”.
It took six tense days before the votes were finally counted and William Ruto was declared Kenya’s fifth president, winning 50.5% of the vote. His rival, Raila Odinga, has said he will use “all legal options” to challenge the result as four election commissioners refuse to endorse the outcome, saying the way the count had been handled was “opaque”.
The self-styled ‘hustler in chief’ formerly served as the Deputy President and was accused of orchestrating crimes against humanity in the international criminal court following 2007 electoral violence – the case was later terminated.
But it’s Ruto’s statements about the LGBTIQ community and reproductive rights that are causing worry and upset for people like Biubwa and Arya Karijo, a transgender activist. The pair recently staged a lesbian wedding in a positive stand for queer visibility.
Back in 2015, Ruto stated that “gays are not allowed here” because Kenya is a “country that worships God”. More recently, in the run-up to the election, Ruto told the media that “my position as a Christian is that Bible teaches us against homosexuality and related matters”. He added, however, that “the law in Kenya becomes the guiding principle. Whatever is within the constitution and the law I will respect”.
But in a country where homosexuality is criminalised, such statements offer little comfort, explains Karijo.
“We have survived so long as a community because no one is really enacting the law that criminalises us,” she told Byline Times. “We have a law that says 14 years imprisonment but it is rare to see any queer people go to court over it. Now we have someone in power who could make that law effective and that is scary. People heard that statement and thought he meant he would be fair to our community but my worry is he is actually going to follow the law”.
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Ruto said in the same interview that “no Kenyan should be subjected to any form of harassment or any form of harm. The only authority that can take action over anybody is the authorities that are permissible within the law and if a Kenyan has not broken any law, nobody should harass them”.
The concerning implication is, of course, that if a Kenyan has broken the law, they can be harassed. Even if the law is not more strictly enforced, the risk is that nothing improves for the LGBTIQ community in the coming years.
“I keep thinking, how will I leave the house as a queer person,” says Biubwa. “I speak to friends who are asking, will we have to take off our rainbow bracelets, will we have to go back in the closet? But some of us have paid a big price to not be in the closet. We cannot go back. That would give the homophobes power”.
Both Biubwa and Karijo warn that Odinga had also made homophobic comments in the past, including in 2010 when he said that any Kenyan found engaging in homosexuality or “lesbianism” would be arrested and jailed.
However, the pair saw Odinga as a better option due to his commitment to human rights, something he shared with his running mate Martha Karua, who was campaigning to become the first female vice president. “He has made statements that are detrimental to the LGBTIQ community but for the longest time his ideologies are founded on human rights,” says Biubwa.
Who is Celebrating
While Ruto’s election has left LGBTIQ activists fearful for the future, anti-gender organisations welcomed the vote. CitizenGO’s Africa Campaigner Ann Kioko called his election a “win for the Church in Kenya” and denounced Martha Karua as the “most radical homosexual activist ever”.
“Tell George Soros that Kenya is a pro-life and pro-family country,” she wrote.
Such statements tap into an antisemitic conspiracy theory that Soros, a Jewish billionaire known for supporting progressive causes, is a ‘puppet master’ – a trope that has a long and ugly history and has been used to justify antisemitic hate. He has been accused of funding Black Lives Matter protests, causing the Coronavirus pandemic, interfering in elections and much more. None of the conspiracies have any basis in reality and are generally shared by the far-right, although he is also a victim of far-left antisemitism.
Kioko has worked for CitizenGO since 2017. The radical anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ Spanish organisation has become increasingly active in the Global South where it exports its model of asking “concerned citizens” to sign petitions primarily relating to issues around LGBTIQ rights, abortion and sex education.
Earlier this year, it was revealed how the platform, founded in Spain by Ignacio Arsuaga and linked to US and European anti-gender leaders, “likely manipulated Twitter conversations in Kenya about reproductive rights”.
In the run-up to Kenya’s elections, it asked its followers to “vote with your values” by inviting candidates to fill out a questionnaire asking if they support banning sex education, banning pornography, will “protect the lives of all unborn children”, and recognise only heterosexual marriage. Neither Ruto nor Odinga completed the questionnaire.
However, in an email from Kioko to CitizenGO’s mailing list, seen by this paper, the organisation ranked parties based on their attitudes to sexual and reproductive rights. Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza coalition were marked as saying “homosexuals have no place in Kenya”, while Odinga’s and Karua’s Azimio La Umoja party is accused of “embracing homosexuals”.
On abortion rights, Ruto’s party is “only in emergency” while Azimio La Umoja are marked as saying reproductive healthcare is “open to discussion”.
Safe abortion is recognised as a constitutional right in Kenya in cases of emergency or if the life and health of the mother are in danger, however, it remains governed by the penal code.
Echoing Biubwa, the founder of sexual and reproductive rights NGO the Zamara Foundation Esther Kimani told Byline Times “I am scared”.
She’s concerned that Ruto’s win, and the popularity he has with Christian fundamentalist groups, will make it harder to advocate for women’s rights.
“It’s not going to be good for us as a movement,” Kimani explained. “We know that his supporters will try to sabotage work on sexual and reproductive rights. We have already been seeing a pushback on issues to do with abortion rights and comprehensive sex education. So me, I’m scared, as a sexual and reproductive rights advocate who believes in women having bodily autonomy and choice”.
The pushback Kimani is referring to relates to the recently introduced Reproductive Health Policy 2022-2032, which has been much criticised by abortion rights activists. The policy failed to deal with issues around safe abortion, and promoted the work of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centres.
“Religious opposition to the policy was so strong,” said Kimani. Groups such as CitizenGO and the Kenya Conference of Bishops all lobbied the Ministry of Health over the policy.
While Kimani is concerned that Ruto’s win could hinder progress on women’s rights, she also sees this as an opportunity for the reproductive rights movement to “re-strategise, to be really strategic and creative as we anticipate the backlash we are going to get”.
“The overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States shows us that the religious and anti-choice movement is strong,” she warned. “We have to be ready”.
CitizenGO declined to comment.
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