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Unexpected victory in Kenya: court says gay group counts too

Register National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Kenyan NGO board told

In a surprising turn of events, Kenya’s high court has ruled in favour of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), compelling the African state to officially register a gay organization.

This marks a significant change in direction in Kenya; the NGLHRC has been fighting for the right to register as a non-governmental organization since 2012. Its application has been blocked by the state five times since then, denying the organization access to such things as the opportunity to hold a bank account.

The court’s April 24 ruling came as a pleasant surprise to local activists. Some of them reportedly didn’t even show up to court, anticipating a negative outcome.

“This victory proves that our constitution works,” Eric Gitari, executive director of the NGLHRC, tells Daily Xtra in a phone interview. “It shows that our constitution protects us. We have more confidence by this validation.”

The three-judge panel ruled that blocking groups such as the NGLHRC from registration violates the country’s constitution, which protects freedom of association.

“I don’t know how I feel, it’s something beyond words,” Gitari says. “I’m proud of the work we did in this organization.”

The NGLHRC is an independent organization that works to promote the inclusion of gay, lesbian, trans and intersex people in Kenya. David Ochar, a 26-year Kenyan activist, describes its work as essential.

“It makes [LGBT people] feel like they are part of a society,” he says. “Makes them achieve their meaningful potential.”

Until now, the Kenyan NGO Coordination Board has denied NGLHRC’s application because it found the name of the organization to be “unacceptable” since Kenya’s Penal Code criminalises “gay and lesbian liaisons.”

Last October, Human Rights Watch released a video demanding that LGBT-focused organizations be registered in Kenya. The video also included interviews with Kenyan lawyers describing the harsh restrictions that keep them from helping some of Kenya’s minorities, especially gays and lesbians.

Working for a gay rights organization is a difficult decision for many local activists. Ochar, one of very few openly gay Kenyan activists, says the community around him rejects homosexuality completely.

“Your family members think that you got involved in a cult,” he tells Daily Xtra in a Skype interview. “It’s so hard to convince your parents that you’re not doing anything wrong while working for such organizations.”

The situation has been somewhat easier lately for gay people in Kenya, as the country’s authorities have been busy handling other internal security concerns. However, homophobia remains rooted in Kenyan society: school curriculum includes condemnations of homosexuality, and religious Christian preachers publicly call for more severe punishments for men accused of homosexuality.

“You feel like you’re not part of the system. Everywhere you go, you feel condemned,” Ochar says.

Kenya’s harsh anti-gay laws are among the worst globally. Men found guilty of homosexuality face a penalty of five to 14 years of imprisonment.

Last year, a Kenyan parliamentary debate sparked international news when legislator Alois Lentoimaga demanded that the country increase its legal penalties against homosexuality. “Can’t we just be brave enough,” he asked, “and outlaw gayism and lesbianism, the way Uganda has done?”

Uganda is well known for its harsh anti-gay laws. Men who have sex with men in Uganda can be sentenced to life imprisonment.

In response to Lentoimaga’s demands, Aden Duale, Kenya’s ruling party’s parliamentary leader, equated homosexuality to terrorism. However, he argued against increasing legal punishments on the grounds that the existing laws were tough enough.