On May 17th, my employer held an event to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB). It was the first time the Rainbow Flag was seen at the Nairobi headquarters of my organisation, and that in itself was a momentous event.
We received the usual notification of the event many days before. I usually attend those in solidarity with my LGBTI colleagues whether openly acknowledging their sexuality or not. I attend also in my belief to stand up against any form of discrimination. My responsibility to attend weighs a bit heavier because of my Arab/Muslim background. I would like to show that not everyone from my culture is a homophobic.
Sadly, and although there were free snacks and drinks on offer, the attendance was not high. Attendees were mostly of European descent, with the locals making up a very small minority. Kenya, like most other African countries, is highly homophobic. The reason behind this is the traditional macho image of men, which the African tradition shares with my native Arab culture. Later the influence of religious beliefs that view homosexuality as sin deepened the prejudice further, and the native cultures that tolerated to a certain extent gay relationships between women, now stand against these as well.
Among the male Africans, or locals, who attended the head of protocol and the head of the staff union made brief appearances. And within the small African group, the women clearly outnumbered the men. I find that women are more likely to stand up against discrimination, perhaps because they are often a target for discrimination themselves.
There weren’t many surprises in the keynote addresses. Officials and ambassadors from mostly liberal Western countries spoke (Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, for example). A notable exception was the Executive Director of one of one of the international organisations, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, from Malaysia. She spoke in support of the occasion, and even mentioning that the day coincided with the first day of Ramadan. I have always been wary of the director’s appearance, because she wears the Islamic headscarf. I am prepared, however, to dismiss people’s appearances and examine their their behaviour patterns instead. And in this particular instance I choose to lay aside my inherent skepticism. After all, she could have chosen to attend but NOT speak, so I will view it as a positive sign for a Muslim woman to take the podium on this issue.
All the speakers emphasized that the Declaration of Human Rights, also enshrines the right to live in freedom with our chosen gender identity and sexual orientation. The discrimination against gender identity and sexual preference is no different that any other discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, class or disability.
The most touching address for me was the one given by Kenyan activist Yvonne Oduor. She listed many of the overt and covert ways Kenyan gays and lesbians suffer from discrimination and denunciation in their communities and families. The discriminatory statements that high-ranking Kenyan government officials make against same sex relationships are widely publicised. The current president was quoted as saying that “Homosexuality is not a problem in Kenya”, implying that it did not exist in Kenya or that it was a Western invention. Either way, his statement is false and denies reality and clear historical evidence. The discrimination, marginalization and stigma are the only reasons why the gay community remains largely invisible in Kenya. Yvonne ended her remarks by saying that as an activist she is not fighting to win people’s love and support as a gay woman, she is merely fighting for her right to live, and not to be lynched for her lifestyle. It is sadly true, but the fight against homophobia still has a long ways to go in much of Africa.
I have mentioned before that my native culture is no better. Love is a huge thing in Arabic poetry and literary tradition and there is plenty of evidence on its existence between men and women, and between men. Love between women was almost the normal order of the day, especially in the court of the sultans and strongmen who kept many wives and scores of concubines in their Harem. Women spent most of their days amongst themselves, entertaining each other, in the absence of their owner/husband. The only men they had access to were eunuchs. I would think it is human nature for them to find solace, and even love, with their fellow captives.
African society also tolerates the love of woman to woman, but the hypocrisy of its macho tradition precludes any sexual image to a man other than the aggressor in the sexual act. The attraction to another man is not the problem, what bothers these macho men most is the idea of a male taking the role of a female in a sexual intercourse. It took me a while to understand this sub classification in male-to-male love.
Saudi Arabia for example is a place where gay relationships are punishable. But the nature of its repressive society and strict gender segregation makes it a fertile ground for same sex relationships. Yet when it comes to sexual relationships between men, everyone wants to be a “top” and there are hardly any local gay men who are willing to be the “bottom”. It seems that there is discrimination between the two roles, one is seen as less “man” than the other. There are no such problems in female-to-female relationships, even in this morally conflicted environment. Women who have sex with each other are still women, but since woman’s ranking is already low in the society, she cannot go any lower from her position of powerlessness, whether straight or gay.
I am always at pains to understand the nature of our discrimination against gay people. It is hard enough for heterosexuals to find genuine love and understanding even while looking in the bigger pool of heterosexually inclined humanity. So why would anyone willingly restrict themselves to finding love and understanding within the smaller pool of gay people? Or maybe it is that gay people are genuinely nicer and more in touch with themselves and the people they love. After all, who would understand a woman better than another woman? And who would understand a man better than another man? Maybe they are on to something.