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Moving speech at gay Pride in Kenya: The importance of visibility

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Scott Wooledge and I had a back and forth in the comments to my recent post about the news that the US Embassy in Kenya was hosting a Pride celebration.

Some local Kenyan activists thought it was a bad idea. I disagreed. Well, at the very least, I suggested that the local activists "might" be wrong about it being a bad idea. Scott suggested that the local activists knew better about how safe it was to be "out," about whether there'd be a backlash, whether the event would help brand being gay as a 'western' thing.

I suggested that Kenya was not the first place on the planet where civil rights advocates faced hostile opposition (the Soviet Union and the Deep South during the 50s and 60s came to mind), and that sometimes, even in the face of danger, it's better to stand up.

Anyway, below is a speech given by the head of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya at the US Embassy Pride event. It's a beautiful speech. And it hits on a point I hadn't mentioned: The Value of Visibility. Read the speech - first half is the best part - then a few more words from me.
Speech at Pride Celebrations at the US Embassy, Nairobi, by GALCK's General Manager, MaqC Eric Gitau, on 26th June 2012.

All protocols observed, Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

I am absolutely delighted to be in the midst of this unique gathering of Kenyan LGBTI activists, fellow allies, human rights advocates, diplomatic missions and the media as we mark Pride 2012. The Pride Month commemorated all over the world in June is one of the most significant events in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual as well as Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) movement calendar.

Some may argue that commemorating a June Pride Month that started at Stonewall in West Village, New York is the epitome of western supremacy in an increasingly homogenized global culture; others may even argue that a pride event such as this may have a negative effect on the gains already made in Kenyan LGBTI activism and advocacy. On the extreme, others may even imagine an "insidious agenda" by the Global North in their promotion of human rights for LGBTI.

What makes this day stand out for us here in Kenya however is more than anything else, it is about visibility. If it had Kenyan roots, pride month would probably be celebrated in commemoration of the World Social Forum held in Nairobi in 2007. I recall the story of a girl from Kitui County who at the time was deeply depressed in the thought that she was alone in her sexual orientation. She had been demonized by her pastor and family and had even contemplated suicide until she saw the event being covered on television. The faces of our pioneer bold OUT activists gave her such hope and like many others across the country, she finally felt a sense of belonging and her life changed for the better since. [emphasis added]

Despite the diverse and polarized sentiments on the issue of celebrating pride in Kenya, some things shall remain common to all members and allies of the LGBTI community;

a. We share our value for the equal protection of human rights for all persons regardless of whom they love and how they express themselves even beyond the binary gender definitions;

b. We share the lived realities of being in a hetero-normative environment where discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity issues are considered unpalatable;

c. We share historical victories that have brought the movement to where it is currently amongst them

1. inclusion of gay and bisexual men as most at risk populations in the national strategy focusing on the war against the HIV/AIDS pandemic,

2. The recent Kenya National Commission for Human Rights public inquiry report calling for the decriminalization of same sex practice,

3. The Media Council of Kenya and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Guidelines for Election Coverage in Kenya that help prevent messages of contempt towards LGB individuals, amongst other gains.

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), which is the national body of organizations dealing with rights, health and welfare issues of not only Gay and Lesbian but also critically Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex groups and individuals in Kenya is on a mission to promote recognition, acceptance and the rights of LGBTI organizations and their members.

Since our inception in 2006 we have been able to create a country wide network through our member groups and affiliates, with better organized grassroots and issue based advocacy that focuses on mitigating common challenges; that is strengthened by common values and principles while addressing the enormously diverse needs and concerns of various gender and sexual minorities.

Whereas Pride Month is about celebrating the giant leaps and also the baby steps made in the movement to win historic rights and cultural acceptance for LGBTI people across the world and indeed in our country, and in as much as we recognize how through covert lobbying, the movement has grown in leaps and bounds, a lot remains to be done. A time has also come to chat out a future where those gains are protected, nurtured and used as a catapult for our vision; a safe and enabling environment for all LGBTI organizations and individuals in Kenya.

While in the US the current debate and priority is majorly about legalizing same-sex marriage, the current concern for the sexual and gender minority communities here in Kenya is all about equality and non-discrimination through multiple and parallel approaches. This is where we start in Kenya. Our war is still on with battles raging in the religious and cultural front where these social constructs are still used as basis for arguments on what is natural or unnatural and still have great influence on policy formulation and even service delivery.

We will continue to fuse activism with a more critical indigenous advocacy that is intimate with the contextual issues surrounding LGBTI persons. This is not going to be a one person or one organization led movement. It can no longer remain just the prerogative of defenders of human rights and LGBTI activists.

It will take for government officials and agencies, the private sector, cultural and religious leaders, institutions of learning, the Judiciary, the Media, diplomatic missions, parents, friends and more allies to add people power, voice, position and agency to the noble fight so that we live in a Kenya where equality and non-discrimination is a lived reality and not a hazy future.

When we work together and invest not just our financial resources, but our skills, ideas, thoughts, relationships, networks, and platforms, we will see a Kenya where transgender persons no longer have to go to court to access the much needed health services, and are no longer charged for impersonation.

Together we can work towards a Kenya where intersex persons can have facilities that specifically caters to them that are neither male nor female because a court ruling years ago made ones gender identity the due of the birth parents.

Together we can work towards a Kenya where a gay man isn't denied societal and familial intercourse simply because he loves men;

Together we can work towards a Kenya, where a lesbian girl is not pushed to suicide because the people she calls family aren't in agreement with her challenge to the hetero-normative patriarchal structures of society.

Together we can work towards a Kenya where there will be zero violent assaults, misinformation and any form of phobia towards LGBTI persons.

It is a great day not just to celebrate, but to also call on all of us to continue with the most noble of fights - equality, not just for a few, but for all, irrespective of whom you love or how you look.

Thank you. God bless you. God bless Kenya.

Warm Regards,

MaqC Eric Gitau | The General Manager
The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK)
P.O. Box 13005-00100 GPO, Nairobi-Kenya
I remember after the gays in the military debacle in 1993, thinking that in spite of the fact that we got creamed, we did score one huge victory: Making the words "gay" and "lesbian" a topic of discussion at every breakfast table in American for six whole months.

You have to remember, 1993 was pre-Internet (well, pre- commercially available Internet). Back then, we got our news from the local paper, the local TV news, and the nightly news. That was it. And for six months during the first half of January 1993, that media was obsessed with gays in the military. It was practically non-stop coverage of a topic, homosexuality, that at that point in history only made its way into the press every once in a blue moon.

The positive impact on gay rights of the visibility of the DADT battle in 1993 was, in my view, immeasurably important. People regularly saw mainstream gay people on TV, US service members fighting for their country, when the previous coverage was usually some guy in feathers or butt-less leather chaps at a Pride parade (which is rather harmful coverage when that's the only view the public ever gets of your community).

So I'm for visibility - and while I recognize the dangers inherent in this kind of work in other countries, I don't think we should simply nod in agreement when folks say it's too dangerous.  Sometimes it is, and sometimes there's no such thing.

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