President Barack Obama's recent show of support for gay marriage provided an impetus for deeper discussion of gay rights around the world. From Germany to Argentina, world leaders took the opportunity to weigh-in on the president's announcement. The immediate effect of Obama's affirmation demonstrates not only that the struggle for gay rights has international dimensions, but also that people all over the world still look to the US as a compass for social progress.
The reactions, however, are not all positive. World reactions, in fact, are never entirely positive when America makes progress on gay rights. For example, last year when Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that US foreign assistance would strive to promote the protection of LGBT rights, government and religious leaders in Africa immediately expressed their opposition. Oliver Kisaka, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, declared bluntly: "We don't believe in advancing the rights of gays."
Kenya is especially unique in this regard. The US and President Obama are viewed favorably in Kenya, yet any show of support for gay rights from America is immediately met with opposition. Very few people in Kenya support gay rights. In fact, according to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 96 percent of Kenyans stated that homosexuality should be rejected by society.
The laws of Kenya reflect the societal non-acceptance of gays and lesbians. Sections 162 to 165 of the Kenyan Penal Code [PDF] criminalize homosexual behavior. According to a 2011 report [PDF] from the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), although there are few convictions based on sections 162 to 165, LGBT persons are routinely harassed by the police and presented in court on trumped up charges. Closely related to this, corrupt police officials routinely extort and blackmail LGBT persons with the threat of arrest and imprisonment if they do not give bribes.
In addition, Kenya's Constitution of 2010 [PDF], while progressive in a number of ways, limits the right to marry to people of the opposite sex. Highlighting this fact in the wake of the constitutional referendum, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, in response to progress for gay rights in the western world, proclaimed that "if found, homosexuals should be arrested and taken to the authorities."
The saving grace to this situation is that while the established guard in Kenya views progress for gay rights in America with disdain, the youth seem to be viewing it with intrigue. Although Kenyan students are not currently engaging in mass protest of their government's policies, they have shown a desire to understand the movement for gay rights in the US. When, in response to progress on gay rights, their government leaders have issued statements, the students have issued questions.
With President Obama's most recent announcement, the youth in Kenya will likely increase the questioning of their country's discriminatory policies. As stated earlier this week by Kenyan gay rights activist Monica Mbaru:
The fact that these comments come from Obama make it much harder for people in Kenya to sit back and say that gay rights are just a western idea.
This recent progress for gay rights may also lead to progress for human rights more generally. When discrimination against LGBT persons is questioned, discrimination in other forms can be questioned as well. This is especially important for Kenya, where ethnic discrimination and violence occurred most recently in the aftermath of the previous presidential election. Unfortunately, the abhorrent nature of ethnic discrimination is not always obvious because discrimination in other forms is still very much accepted in Kenyan society.
Fortunately, the US is still seen as a compass for social progress, and thus, Obama's show of support for gay marriage is likely to have positive effects for human rights all over the world as emerging young leaders begin to question discriminatory policies. For our sake as Americans, and for people in countries such as Kenya, we can be happy that the compass is now pointed in the right direction.
M. Patrick Yingling is an associate practicing commercial litigation at Reed Smith LLP in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining Reed Smith, he was a Visiting Lecturer at Moi University School of Law in Eldoret, Kenya. As a Visiting Lecturer, Patrick taught a course titled "Legal Research, Methods & Writing" to 650 first-year law students. He is a 2011 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Suggested citation: M. Patrick Yingling, President Obama's stance on LGBT rights a beacon for Kenya, JURIST - Sidebar, June 1, 2012, http://jurist.org/sidebar/2012/05/patrick-yingling-lgbt-kenya.php
This article was prepared for publication by Sean Gallagher, the head of JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com