Kenyan ex-pat aims to help gay countrymen

Published: November 3, 2011

A backlash is hitting LGBT Africans who are courageous enough to stand up against blackmail attempts by authorities and governments attempting to criminalize individuals attracted to members of the same sex.

The African experience brought Kenyan LGBT activist and political asylee Lourence "Larry" Misedah to San Francisco last month with Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Johnson and Misedah, who fled his native country to neighboring Uganda for eight months during 2007-2008 only to return and leave again to begin a new life the United States in 2010, sat down for a conversation with the Bay Area Reporter October 23.

The 28-year-old Kenyan expatriate now resides in Houston thanks to the help of international LGBT activist friends. He discussed the plight of African LGBT activists and the state of Kenya and Uganda’s gay rights movements.

Prior to leaving his home country, Misedah worked for six years with HIV/AIDS and LGBT rights organizations after he publicly came out at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.

Misedah was in the Bay Area on behalf of IGLHRC to attend a fundraiser, where he spoke about his experiences. About 70 people attended the event; Johnson was unsure how much money was raised.

Roar of the lion

Africa’s LGBT rights movement continues to heat up throughout the continent as severe anti-gay legislation continues to be introduced in various nations, a backlash to gains made by LGBT activists within the past half-dozen years, Johnson said.

Compounding the LGBT movement in Africa is international pressure, most recently by the U.S. and Britain. Within the past several weeks the British government has proposed decreasing funding to nations that violate LGBT human rights and called to legalize homosexuality in its 54 former commonwealths. Many of the nations inherited anti-gay laws when under British rule.

"The British government did not consult with us," said Misedah, concerned about how the U.K. government’s actions will affect LGBT Africans.

On October 25, debate over Uganda’s anti-gay bill was resurrected by the country’s parliament. Nigeria introduced its third attempt at an anti-same sex marriage bill October 18, which is being fast tracked through the legislative process, according to media reports. Two men arrested in Cameroon in late July remain in custody after their October 10 hearing. Another gay man convicted in Cameroon in June continues not to do well in prison, according to international human rights activists.

"The anti-homosexuality bill was … really an irrational and illogical backlash," by the right wing against "ethical, legal, and moral attempts by the emerging LGBT movement to advocate for a basic set of rights that were starting to have impact," Johnson said.

Misedah is leery about the British government’s recent actions. To his knowledge, African LGBT activists weren’t consulted by the British government.

"Yes, we appreciate international support, but this needs to be done with consultation with us," continued Misedah, not led by the U.S. or U.K. on behalf of African LGBT communities. "We appreciate you trying to stand up for us, but you need to consult us to know how this will affect us as people."

Two-thirds of African nations still have "explicit or implicit criminalization of same-sex relationships encoded in their laws," said Johnson. IGLHRC supports the locally led struggles against those laws, he explained.

The U.S. has taken an approach similar to IGLHRC, supporting LGBT activists through advocacy and aid, Misedah believes. U.S. support has opened a passage for African LGBT activists who are learning to leverage that through documentation when lobbying in their countries, especially for HIV/AIDS health care and prevention services, but also to push for LGBT rights, he said.
Johnson agreed that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership has brought a "moral authority" to the international community. Many African leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Presidents Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi and Paul Kagame of Rwanda are standing up against homophobia on behalf of their citizens and are also taking a leadership role. Their attempts often find their own "morality and integrity" being attacked and being the recipients of gay-bashing and -baiting, Johnson pointed out.

African and gay

Until recently, Kenyan LGBT individuals were isolated, believing they were the only ones in their community; some expressed the desire to take their own lives, said Misedah. Older gay and lesbian individuals were forced to marry people of the opposite sex. Younger queer Kenyans felt comfort from their problems with alcohol, said Misedah, who also felt the cold hand of isolation until he came out.

Coming out liberated Misedah, he no longer suffered from the isolation and instead became a beacon for others.

"I felt sort of obliged in order to speak for those who did not have a voice," said Misedah. "I just felt that we needed to speak more and let the society know the challenges that LGBTI people were facing."

He worked first with Ishtar MSM, one of Kenya’s first organizations to provide health services to men who have sex with men. He served as the spokesman for Sexual Minorities Uganda’s first media campaign. Misedah, in collaboration with IGLHRC, drafted the first Declaration on Transgender Rights for Central and East Africa in 2007 and continued to work on capacity building in Africa with IGLHRC. He spoke at the African AIDS conference in 2009.

Misedah, among others, risked the threat of up to 14 years of imprisonment under Kenya’s penal codes sections 162 and 165 for attempted or homosexual behavior under "carnal knowledge against the order of nature."

Misedah, who came from a well-to-do family, found himself banished from his family and cut off from his educational support at the university, where he eventually obtained his bachelor’s degree in environmental planning and management, he said.

Usually, families look the other way in regards to their LGBT family members who have financial resources and contribute to their families. Poor queer Kenyans, however, often find themselves in "deep trouble," said Misedah.

Queer women are often found in Kenya’s women’s rights movement, which works with the LGBT movement, said Misedah. While the law is enforced mostly on gay men, lesbian women find themselves being persecuted as victims of "corrective rape" or murdered with their families, rarely seeing justice, Misedah said.

In South Africa out of the 24 murders of queer women there has been only one reported conviction, but the suspect was "let go," he added.

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