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Kenyan activist calls for LGBT safe spaces

By David Kuria Mbote in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 14:42

The murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato has brought greater global attention to the plight of Africa’s sexual minorities. David Kuria Mbote, general manager of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya who is standing for public office in Kenya, calls for an international show of solidarity, including the creation of LGBTI-friendly ‘safe spaces’.

The brutal murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato has brought to the fore the ever-present threat to LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, inter-sex) rights activists in much of Africa today. David Kato was personally known to many activists across Africa, since he was quite vocal in stating his position against all forms of discrimination and entrenched inequalities between human beings.

The introduction of the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan parliament could not have infuriated David more. He was already opposed to the existing laws that criminalize homosexuals, as well as their exclusion from the government’s HIV programme. In his death, the struggle against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill becomes even more poignant. What many human rights activists had feared has sadly come to pass; the law only serves to further entrench hatred against LGBTI persons, sometimes with fatal consequences.

David’s brutal murder sent shivers down the spines of many LGBTI activists across the continent. While we are all accustomed to verbal and often even physical attacks, we tend to assume that not many people would be so vicious as to actually beat us to death. David’s killing rudely woke us all from that slumber.

Change must come, fast

The international attention generated by his murder should, however, help the work of LGBTI activists in Africa to gain visibility, especially against the ever-frustrating, if ineffective assertion that same-sex sexuality is somehow “un-African”. Pressure from international institutions such as UNAIDS has already led to some modest health programmes for sexual minorities. But it will be actual change to legal environments and people’s attitudes that will hopefully do much to assure that the murder of activists like David is not repeated.

Legal reform in Africa will probably take more time than rights activists would want, and changes in people’s attitudes even longer. Even though the investigation into David’s murder is not yet complete, the Ugandan police are reported to have reduced it to a case of “normal robbery”. One shudders at the thought of LGBTI murders across the region, becoming ‘normal’. Change is clearly needed, and needed fast.

Come out in support

Changes in attitudes, however, will not come without a catalyst. That is why it is not enough to just condemn David’s fate. Individuals and organisations must move beyond that by taking progressive stances in favour of the LGBTI people close to them. However, most LGBTI people in Africa have long been forced to live with extreme forms of homophobia, and would naturally want to hide their sexual and gender identities. It would be very helpful for those supportive of them to be ‘out’ about their support.

Individuals and organizations, especially those in the human rights movement, can begin by stating clearly that their own personal and organisational spaces are ‘safe spaces’ for LGBTI people. Many international organisations with LGBTI-friendly policies in other parts of the world could start by extending the same policies to their African offices – and more importantly, by doing so explicitly. Coming out is hard for any one, and it is certainly going to take some guts for those supportive of LGBTI rights, as well. Yet it is not enough to condemn the gross human rights violations of LGBTI people, nor can it be enough to condemn David’s murder. Action must be taken.

Maybe David’s death could not have been prevented by any explicit expansion of a LGBTI safe space in Uganda. But by making an explicit statement about support and extension of such a space, not only would LGBTI people live with much greater freedom, the perpetrators of hate and violence against them would also know that they do not enjoy the unequivocal support in Africa they have so long taken for granted.

David Kuria Mbote is the general manager of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya

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