By Callie Long and Patrick Rukwaro, Internews in Kenya.
Imagine if someone told you that by stripping you of your rights as a human being, it would be the equivalent of receiving a gift. As unimaginable as this may seem, this is exactly what is happening in Uganda right now, where parliament is discussing an Anti-Homosexuality Bill, whose passage, if successful, has been described by the speaker as a "Christmas gift" to the Ugandan people.
In Kenya, the picture is significantly different – even as legal hurdles still exist, with sex between men still considered illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Since 2008, when Internews in Kenya first started working with the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, public perception has shifted to the point where the Kenyan media is increasingly providing the necessary space for the community to be seen and heard. Also in 2008, the Modes of Transmission Survey had shown that some 15 percent of all new HIV infections in Kenya were reported among men who have sex with men (MSM.) Data also showed that 60 percent of MSM in the country live in heterosexual relationships. These worrying statistics triggered Internews’ decision to engage directly with the community as an important bridge between them and the media, as the data translated into a significant HIV burden, given that MSM remain marginalized and alienated from accessing health services.
Most recently, David Kuria Mbote, the first openly gay Kenyan running for a senate seat, was interviewed on K24 television, a sure sign that the media is beginning to tell the stories about gay people in a positive way.
It has been a year of significant milestones for Kuria, who attended an Internews strategic communications workshop in 2010 where he honed his communication skills. He was shortlisted for the HIV, Law and Human Rights award, following his nomination by Internews for the most at risk population and HIV category of the award that celebrates individuals and organizations that have made outstanding and positive contributions to the protection of the rights and dignity of those infected and affected by HIV, including key populations.
“Even if I do not win, the fact that the letter is on a government letterhead is recognition that the government is now fighting HIV in the way that I do,” Kuria told Internews in Kenya Broadcast trainer Patrick Rukwaro. Partly because of Kuria’s efforts, the government included men who have sex with men in the 2009-2013 National HIV Strategic Plan, the first time the gay community received such recognition in Kenya.
“The award affirms all the work we have done to end criminalization of the gay community and promote understanding that everyone is entitled to equal access to healthcare,” he said. Kuria is the first openly gay Kenyan to declare interest in an elective national political post. He will vie for a senate seat in Kiambu County in the General Election next year.
Earlier in October, a groundbreaking 3-part documentary, The Invisible Bridge, aired on K24 television about the secret lives of gay men in Kisumu, Kenya. It was produced by Internews trainee, Stella Kasina, and documented the many challenges they not only face, but have also overcome.
Internews has been working in Kenya since 2003, training journalists to report on HIV/AIDS.
“Internews first engaged with the gay and lesbian community in 2008 after realizing that no media told their story yet they are a key population at risk of contracting HIV,” says Ernest Waititu, Internews Project Director of the Health and Digital Media Program. Bridge between the media and the community
Kuria, who earlier represented Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), remarked that Internews’ training of members of Kenya’s gay community to tell their own stories – about rights violations and access to health care and life in a society which stigmatizes homosexuality – was “a huge thing. It comes exactly at the right time”. GALCK, with the help of Internews, started the web site Freedom in Speech, an online news magazine that helps articulate issues of the LGBTI community in Kenya.
Kuria’s television appearance is one more small but significant sign that the Kenyan media is beginning to tell stories about gay people in a positive way, even as the country’s neighbours are facing a very different challenge.
Watch a video about the efforts of Internews to improve media coverage of LGBTI issues in Kenya.