Kenya’s LGBTQ Community Is Still At Risk
Rest in peace, Edwin Chiloba.
Rest in peace, Edwin Chiloba.
On the 4th of January 2023, the decomposing body of Kenyan LGBTQ activist Edwin Chiloba was found stashed in a metallic box. Chiloba, who was a popular model, social media influencer and divisive figure in Kenya’s largely queerphobic society, was grotesquely found with socks stuffed into his mouth and a piece of denim from jeans tied around his face. This gory murder attracted global condemnation as it was initially thought of as a crime against his sexuality. Right now, though, it has been alleged as a crime of passion by law enforcement. Five people were arrested in connection with the murder, including Chiloba’s long-time friend and suspected lover Jackton Odhiambo, who local authorities have described as the main suspect.
Both former president Uhuru Kenyatta and Kenya’s current presiding leader, have given a clear stand on homosexuality constantly claiming their rights are not priority issues in Kenya. Homosexuality is taboo in Kenya, not too dissimilar to much of Africa, and gay people often face discrimination or persecution. Attempts to overturn British colonial-era laws banning homosexuality in Kenya have proven unsuccessful, and gay sex remains a punishable crime with penalties that include imprisonment of up to 14 years. This negligence has even grown over into social crimes such as domestic violence within homosexual partners who have the expectations that these cases will be swept the carpet because of Kenya’s stand against homosexuality.
Kenya’s Penal Code, a colonial-era relic, criminalises “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” widely understood to refer to anal intercourse between men. Government agencies have denied some organisations representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Kenyans the right to register and operate legally, on the grounds that they allegedly promote illegal behaviour, although recent court victories have compelled the authorities to register two organisations. Politicians and extremist religious leaders seek to bolster their relevance by proposing homophobic legislation and preaching hatred against gay Kenyans. Media houses engage in sensational reporting on “scandals,” sometimes entirely fabricated, involving LGBT+ people. Although many LGBT people draw on support from friends and family and carve out spaces in which they can live in relative safety, the risk of violence remains present.
Kenya’s progressive new constitution, promulgated in 2010, guarantees all Kenyans the rights to privacy, equality, dignity, and non-discrimination. It articulates a set of national values that include “human rights, non-discrimination, and protection of the marginalized.” Further, the constitution integrates international law—including treaties ratified by Kenya that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation—into Kenyan law. These provisions provide Kenyan authorities with an opportunity to eliminate laws and practices that discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
During the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Council in January 2015, Kenya rejected recommendations to decriminalise same-sex conduct between consenting adults, but accepted a recommendation to “adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law affording protection to all individuals, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Kenyan activists are pushing for the government to uphold this commitment as well as to decriminalise same-sex conduct.
Kenya’s approach to addressing the clear vulnerability of LGBT people to violence and instability should be guided by a landmark resolution passed by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in 2013, which called on member states to “end all acts of violence and abuse, whether committed by State or non-state actors” against individuals on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. This general stigma even makes it difficult for those close to queer persons to offer support. Prior to Edwin Chiloba’s burial, his family constantly denied his sexuality, to the point of claiming he was a pastor and a youth leader.
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It’s clear that the abuse and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya drives public opinion and enhances stigma among Kenyans. For Edwin Chiloba, the police’s investigations alleging that it was a crime carried out by a close friend and a partner, is in stark contrast to the initial perception that his murder was queerphobia-fuelled. Even the reactions on social media mirrored the casual cruelty consistently meted out to queer persons, with gleeful vitriol floating around after news of Chiloba’s passing became public.
Regardless of the intentions behind his murder, a crime was still committed. That it happened to Edwin Chiloba, who was openly and flamboyantly queer, is a sharp reminder that the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya exists in a hateful society. All that we can keep doing is admonishing and joining in the calls for the abolishment of state-backed queerphobia. The Kenyan Parliament and county legislative assemblies should repeal laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex worker status. They should adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws that explicitly protect people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It is the Kenyan government’s responsibility to ensure the safety of all citizens, including by more effectively addressing the violence and insecurity that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face.
Rest in peace, Edwin Chiloba. Say His Name.