By Makau Mutua
Last Saturday, I was humbled – and deeply honoured – to be recognised with a gay rights award. The unexpected award brought many tears of joy to my eyes. I was deeply moved. The Kenya National Gay and Human Rights Commission, an NGO, hosted the first annual gay and lesbian awards, or GALA. The venue of the event was a head-turner – Charter Hall at the heart of the City of Nairobi. Imagine that – a major gay rights event staged at the inner sanctum of “masculine power”. Folks, Kenya is changing – for the better.
I received the Mwongozi (Leadership) Award as a public figure that’s fought for gay rights. The vitriol I received on social media was anything but venomous. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there to accept the award in person. The Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya’s leading human rights NGO, was honoured with the Msaidizi (Ally) Award. The message these awards sent is clear – gay rights have entered Kenya’s mainstream.
Our gay compatriots – and gay and lesbian rights – are here to stay. Homophobes can take this to the bank – gay and lesbian Kenyans are a political and social fact of life. Their power and influence can only increase. Slowly, more gay Kenyans will “come out of the closet” and proudly proclaim their sexual identities.
This is the arc of history, and it’s unstoppable. I ask all the “haters” to stop hating, and start loving. Live and let live. The arguments advanced against gay rights are woefully benighted. Writing on social media, one fellow compared homosexuality to bestiality. Another said it was anti-Christian, unGodly, and un-African.
The surnames of both writers appeared to be of Kenyan origin. But their first names were of European origin – one was Mike, the other Gordon. But I made a mental note that “Gordon” isn’t usually a first name in the West. The fellow, or his parents who reached across the oceans to snatch a “European” name, obviously didn’t know the irony. How does a Kenyan with a “European” name denounce gay rights as “alien” and Western? Why would a Kenyan, who is a Christian – a “European” religion – oppose gay rights as Western?
I also noticed that these vitriolic commentators were writing in English, a “European” language. My point is that knee-jerk homophobia is a visceral expression of pure and utter ignorance. It’s myopic hatred driven by banal bigotry. These folks have drunk some poisonous Kool-Aid.
It’s a Kool-Aid that’s spiked by un-interrogated cultural and religious prejudices. They are gut reactions devoid of intellect. In evolutionary terms, such hatred can only be equated to the Stone Age. It’s a stubborn mental rigidity that defies intellectual curiosity and description.
But this is what my crystal ball tells me – such haters are an endangered species. Their real estate is shrinking, and fast. They belong not to the future, but the proverbial dustbin of history.
Homophobes shouldn’t be ahistorical. Not too long ago, people of African descent were treated the way gays are treated today. Black Kenyan homophobes need to look in the mirror. There they will see a person who was regarded as subhuman in Apartheid South Africa before 1996.
There they will see a person who couldn’t vote in the United States, or go to the same school with whites, just several decades ago. There they will see a person who wasn’t allowed in certain parts of Nairobi after dusk before 1963. There they will see a person who wasn’t allowed to buy and drink “mzungu [European] beer” in the 1950s. There they will see a person who isn’t safe in certain American neighbourhoods.
These social media haters wanted to know whether I was gay. They thought CJ Willy Mutunga was gay because he wore an ear stud. Their minds are stunningly uncomplicated. I shot back at them, and asked why my sexuality would have anything to do with my support for gay rights. I am not a woman, yet I support women’s rights. I am not a child, yet I support children’s rights. I am not disabled, yet I support the rights of persons with disabilities. I am not a criminal suspect, yet I support the rights of suspects. I am not a prisoner, yet I support the rights of prisoners. I don’t choose which rights to protect, and which to neglect.
I’ll take them to school. The theory of anti-subordination, which must guide all who believe in human dignity and human rights, dictates that we oppose all forms of powerlessness and oppression.
We shouldn’t oppose discrimination against women while supporting the persecution of certain ethnic groups. This is the point – we shouldn’t oppose one wrong, while supporting another. That’s why I and the KHRC work to promote and protect all rights, including sexual orientation. For more on my scholarship on these questions, go to my blog and download my articles.
Each and every human being must be treated with respect and dignity. This is in the Kenyan Constitution. Nowhere does it say gays aren’t entitled to dignity, rights and protection.
I end where I began. Societies aren’t judged by how they treat their wealthiest, most powerful citizens. Or their majorities. No – societies are judged by how they treat those who are most vulnerable and unpopular.
You can judge the soul of a country by how it treats its minorities. The wealthy and powerful don’t need protection, nor do majorities.
They can protect themselves. It’s those among us who are dissenters, or “different,” who must be protected. That’s because society can’t ultimately protect its majority if it can’t secure the rights of its minorities.
From Sunday Nation, Sunday 23rd December 2012
Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of the KHRC. Twitter @makaumutua.