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'We live in fear,' say gays in Kenya

  • Story Highlights
  • Gay Kenyans face verbal abuse and even physical attacks.
  • Law states gays can face up to 14 years in jail if convicted under penal codes
  • Gay Kenyans usually arrested on charges like 'loitering', 'disturbing the peace'
  • Pastor: Practice is unheard of among Kenyans and must have been imported
  • Next Article in World »
By David McKenzie
CNN Correspondent
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NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- In a downtown Nairobi salon, tucked away in nondescript office building, women sit under hair dryers and gossip. They have their hair trimmed and their feet and hands pampered.

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Jackson Irungu is quitting Kenya after being targeted for being gay.

But there is one patron that draws the eye. In his Bermuda shorts, orange shirt, and cravat, Jackson Irungu is getting a manicure.

He is among a tiny minority of openly gay men in Kenya who face a constant barrage of verbal abuse on the street and even occasional physical attacks.

"We live in fear," says Irungu, "There is a perception that being gay is wrong so it is a bit tricky being gay when you live in Kenya."

Irungu says a friend of his was beaten so badly outside a nightclub in Nairobi that he had to be taken to hospital. There is no way to corroborate such incidents with the police because homosexual Kenyans are just too afraid to report them.

The law books help create the ambivalence. Two separate penal codes relate to the gays in Kenya and the archaic laws can lead to a 5 to 14 year jail term.

They are rarely enforced, but penal code 162 and 165 are an effective threat hanging over the gay community. "They have a weapon to which they defend themselves," says Pauline Kimani, a leader of an umbrella organization for gays in Kenya.

She says that gay Kenyans are arrested on charges like 'loitering' and "disturbing the peace." Video Watch report on treatment of gays in Kenya »

"Ending the sodomy laws would be up to members of parliament," says Kenyan government spokesman Dr. Alfred Mutua, "and they represent the people." Gay rights is a non-starter for Kenyan politicians and attempts to repeal the laws have ended practically before they began.

The Kenyans who elect the MPs are mostly on their side. A few people defend gay rights on the streets of Nairobi. But many say that gays shouldn't have rights, are "un-African," and not good Christians.

Kenya is a country of faithful people and religion plays a defining role in homophobia in Kenya. Seventy percent of the country is Christian and there is a sizeable Muslim and Hindu population.

"This is an abomination that is totally unacceptable by God who formed us not to function in that way," says Patrick Kuchio, a popular preacher at Parklands Pentecostal Church.

More traditional denominations in Africa are also conservative, leading the charge to stop gay pastors from being ordained. Though the Pentecostal church made major inroads to Kenya only in the 1950s, many of its supporters, and other faithful in the continent, consider homosexuality a Western concept.

"Amongst traditional Kenyan people, it was unheard of," says Pastor Kuchio. He believes the practice must have been imported into Kenya.

As a result, most homosexuals in the country have to hide their sexual preference for fear of social stigma, say gay activists in Kenya. "They say, 'look, you are evil, the law also disagrees with you,'" says Kimani, "You are not supposed to exist within our community."

By their own admission, gay rights groups have been under funded and disorganized. But since forming an umbrella organization, their leaders say there is a slow thawing of attitudes towards gays in Kenya.

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Their monthly party now gets police protection. But mention something as fundamental as a gay pride march and it is met with laughs. It would be utterly inconceivable, they say.

But for an openly gay man Kenyan like Irungu, progress is too slow in Kenya.

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