Revv22's Blog

July 28, 2015

Same Issue, Different Questions: Presidential perspectives on gays and lesbians in Kenya.

Filed under: Uncategorized — revv22 @ 11:34 am

obama uhuru1

Occasion:  Presidents’ press conference following bilateral talks between U.S. President Barrack Obama and his host President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi. 25th July, 2015.

Jeff Mason, White House correspondent for Reuters is the first to be picked by president Obama to ask a question of which he has two: The first on fighting terrorism, US support to Kenya in-country and in Somalia, and human rights abuses sheltered in counter-terrorism efforts; The second is the main focus of this article and this is how it is put to both presidents.

Question to President Obama: “..can you comment on the treatment of gay and lesbians in Kenya which rights groups have called dismal and President Kenyatta has called it a non-issue?”

Question to President Kenyatta: “Can you also respond to the issue about gay rights in your country?”

obama uhuru2President Obama: “If somebody is obeying all the laws and is doing everything that a good citizen should do, but he or she is being treated differently because of whom they love, it is wrong,”

“And I say this with the understanding that Kenyans have different cultural and religious beliefs. But if you look at the history of nations around the world, when you start treating people differently – not because of any harm they are doing, but because they are different – that is the path whereby freedoms begin to go wrong, and bad things happen,”

obama uhuru5President Kenyatta: “We need to speak frankly about some of these issues. Kenyans and Americans share ideals such as democracy, entrepreneurship and family values but some things are not part of our religion or culture – and we cannot impose something on people that they themselves have not accepted”

“The gay rights issue is really a non-issue, we want to focus on areas that are day to day living of our people; health, inclusivity of women, infrastructure, education, encouraging entrepreneurship… once we deal with the current challenges, then we can look at dealing at other challenges. Right now gay rights is not an issue at the foremost mind of Kenyans. ”

As expected, these two differing responses elicited equally differing responses from Kenyans and covered in a variety angles by local and international media.

obama uhuru1The statement from the Kenyan president was met with applause by a section of persons attending the press briefing. Normally you wouldn’t have journalists applauding this, but this press briefing was attended by cabinet secretaries who had participated in the earlier talks in camera and government affiliated politicians. Interviewed individually, a section of
politicians showed support for the president’s stand against “same sex marriages”.

The local media headlines where consistent in framing the issue as either “gay rights” or “same sex marriage”. In an ironic twist, while celebrating how aware, inspirational and nuanced Obamas speeches were, many ordinary citizens reverberated the Kenyan president’s stance on this issue. It would seem Mr. Obama was convincing on everything else but not enough on this issue.

Some international media headlines such as CNN framed the response by Mr. Obama as a, “lecture  to the Kenyan president on gay rights”. This headline drew a strong response from Kenyans across the board on the nature of CNNs reporting, many stating that it was clear that the two presidents shared different views on the issue but engaged in discussions in a civil manner of mutual respect.

The swift critique of CNNs headline could be seen as a combination of the deep respect and admiration Kenyans have for Obama (making him a very effective champion for such issues).  It could also be because CNN had branded Kenya “a Hotbed of Terror” in one of it’s by lines while covering President Obama’s trip to the country; a mistake for which they were thoroughly  grilled by Kenyans on Twitter (KOT).

Eric Gitari of the National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission expressed his disappointment in a lengthy facebook post. He demonstrated how the treatment of gays and lesbians was an issued in this region as had been acknowledged by the African Commission and indeed in the country by both the Judiciary and executive arms of government through the health ministries.

He said,  “.. when responding to the question of his thoughts on how gay and lesbian people are treated in Kenya. He should have simply made it about how people are treated (that’s what he was asked) He should have elevated the African Commission resolution that violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is not permitted. ” He added, “… the judiciary in his government has given him directions about gay and lesbian and trans issues. His health cabinet secretary told him last year that sixty percent of men who have sex with men in Kenya are in heterosexual marriages and have children, we therefore have issues of the women and children concerned in such families.”

Gitari said that the president politicized a question which was about how people are treated and felt “disappointed” and “very excluded by a president sworn to defend the majority and the minority.”

He was concerned by “a president who just said not all Kenyans are equal …” and finished his rant by saying that the president had lost a chance to brand Kenya as an inclusive democracy that doesn’t tolerate violence and discrimination on any ground.
It has to be noted that prior to the US presidents visit to Kenya, there had been apprehensions within the various LGBTI constituents on what may come after Obama’s commentary on the issue. The President, who has shown to be very keen on what is going on in the country, did well to focus on the “treatment of gays and lesbians”.

President Kenyatta’s position that “gay rights is a non – issue” was perhaps more clearly defined and supported by an opposition senator, Mutula Kilonzo Jnr who said same-sex marriage is not an issue in Kenya. He added: “President Obama went a step further to say that no one should be discriminated for whatever reason.”

The government has in previous occasions used “lack of social acceptance” as an excuse for not repealing undesirable laws such as the sodomy laws.

All this goes to show how the phrasing of the rights debate, the context within which the language is derived and eventually used has a lot to do with how effective a rights campaign will be in not only changing the hearts and minds of people, but also in getting government lead by example by tackling mistreatment.

The kind of support shown has to be appreciative of the other side of the argument otherwise it will immediately be short down as “imposition of outside values”, or “promotion of foreign ideologies”.

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