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In November 1999, Dr Margaret Ogola, a renowned Kenyan author and paediatrician, walked onto a podium in Geneva, Switzerland. She was there to receive an award, the World Congress of Families (WCF) Award for Humanitarian Service, at the WCF’s second congress.

Dressed in a white dress and a white doek, Dr Ogola gave an acceptance speech that was part history and part analysis. She used part of her time to muse on “the collapse of the ideal of the sacred nature of sex”, providing some historical context about the shift in attitudes from the late sixties. She spoke on contraceptives, the demystification of sex, “planet Hollywood”, divorce, and the “assumption of a small family norm”.

Dr Ogola’s speech lit up the auditorium, and she received the longest applause of the whole congress.

Since its establishment in the United States in 1997, the World Congress of Families has held conventions across the world and built a global brand as an advocate of the values of the Christian Right. It has built an influential global network, providing a platform for multi-pronged campaigns for the “ideal” nuclear family, and against sex education and sexual identity, including same-sex relations, rights, and unions.

By the time it sponsored its African regional forum at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi in late September 2016, it had morphed into its truest form. The organisers of the three-day gathering in 2016 had a broad agenda, but one of its main organisers, Ann Kioko, a conservative mobiliser who has worked with various conservative institutions, made it clear that it would be focused on abortion and the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education.

“These programs go beyond regular sex education,” Anne Kioko – at the time president of the African Organisation for Families – said, “[They] are designed to change all the sexual and gender norms of society.”

Two years earlier, the WCF had been categorised as a hate group promoting homophobia and anti-reproductive rights across the world, and identified as a lead campaigner for incredibly harsh antigay laws in Uganda and other countries. Yet, its 2016 Nairobi event counted among its local sponsors the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and the government through the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.

At the subsequent conference in Nigeria the following year, Charles Kanjama, a prominent Kenyan lawyer who was already becoming the legal face of antigay advocacy outside parliament, said, “Advocates of strong families and natural families have to be proactive and offensive rather than defensive in achieving what we define as an ideal family.”

Kanjama is also a leader and mobiliser of the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum (KCPF), which has provided significant legal, intellectual, and public opposition to a film about two lesbians, the registration of an advocacy group focused on LGBTQ+ issues, and support to an anti-gay bill sponsored by Peter Kaluma, member of parliament for Homa Bay constituency and one of the main voices of homophobia in parliament.

The idea of a more proactive approach had long taken root, but both the Trump presidency and rapidly growing global networks that seemed to have traversed geopolitical, racial and other tensions, made it possible to achieve much more. Among the goals of the subsequent 2018 conference in Nairobi was “increased advocacy on family through publications, research, bills, policies, and programs”. This had already worked in Uganda, driven both by organic forces and by money and influence from the WCF and other Christian Right organisations such as Family Watch International (FWI), although the law had been overturned by a court. It would soon return, this time making it into law and encouraging copy cats in Ghana, Kenya, and other countries.

According to a programme published online, the 2018 conference came against the backdrop of a legal challenge against Kenya’s anti-sodomy law. It referred to the advocates mounting the challenge as “sexual radicals” and argued that “if they achieve this goal, they’ll secure a beachhead. This will be quickly followed by gay rights laws, the institution of same-sex marriage and, ultimately, the persecution of Christians”.

The annual regional and global conferences had now become the main meeting point of diverse people with varying degrees of social, political, and economic power.

The persecution of Christians

In the Geneva Declaration 1999 – released after that year’s conference that awarded the Kenyan author – the WCF states: ”Ideologies of statism, individualism and sexual revolution, today challenge the family’s very legitimacy as an institution.”

The conference attendees were multi-denominational and multi-faith, including as many colours of Christianity and Islam as it could. Because of this, its programme and goals were also ambitious, as it saw its common ground in the restitution of the big, nuclear family but also, as many social, geopolitical, and economic issues as it could tack onto that.

Already a renowned author whose seminal work The River and the Source was part of Kenya’s high school curriculum, Dr Ogola received the award for her phenomenal work as a paediatrician at a hospice for HIV/AIDS orphans, among other humanitarian work. It was also, perhaps, not entirely a random decision by the Christian Right, who make up the majority of the membership organisations of the WCF.

Dr Ogola, who died in 2011, was a devout Catholic who had joined the conservative Opus Dei sect within the church a few years earlier. Although Catholicism provided her with moral clarity, it sometimes placed her work as a medical doctor working with HIV/AIDS patients at odds with the church’s doctrines on preventative measures such as condom use. As an author, a doctor – and a paediatrician at that – and a devout Christian, it also placed her in a unique position to speak on “family values”.

Dr Ogola attended the first congress in Warsaw in 1997, was in the planning of the committee of the second one in Geneva in 1999, and spoke at several subsequent conferences. Although she seems to have mostly avoided the simmering issues concerning sexuality, the platforms she found herself addressing often did not.

For example, in August 2005, seven years after she received the WCF award, Dr Ogola was among the keynote speakers at a congress on families organised and hosted by Strathmore University and Family Network in Nairobi. The institution was founded by Opus Dei members in the early 1960s, and still espouses conservative values about multiple issues, including students’ mode of dress.

The conference had participants from 18 countries. In addition to Dr Ogola, other keynote speakers were drawn from major Christian Right organisations, including a representative of the World Congress of Families. Among the main underlying points of agreement in such conferences has always been that the “family unit” is in danger, and mainly from progressive rights on sex that include abortion, sex education, and sexual identity.

In an op-ed that ran in a Lagos-based newspaper the week following the Strathmore Conference, one of the attendees, the Nigerian lawyer and columnist Sonnie Ekwowusi wrote, “To change the natural meaning of the family and model it on the deviant behaviour of a few sick individuals is, to say the least, to debase our humanity.” He began the article by describing a hypothetical situation involving an African man in the diaspora who gets married to another man. Ekwowusi wrote, “If some people in our midst are sick we have to sympathise with them and if necessary take them to the hospitals for treatment,” referring to homosexuality and perhaps to conversion therapy.

An enduring perspective is that sexual identity is an imported concept, which draws on colonial traumas that have not abated. Yet the mainly one-sided debate happening at such conferences was itself a direct import of the cultural wars in the US in the late 1960s that Dr Ogola had referred to in 1999. Losing the war at home, “family values” advocates had shifted to anywhere across the globe where the conversations had either not already started, or where the cultural raw material was in place to trigger and shape social and legal responses.

In Kenya, on paper a deeply religious nation where an overwhelming majority identify as Christian and a significant minority as Muslim, the raw material was already in place.  

A 2018 study among 1,200 Kenyan religious leaders – from Christianity and Islam – found that a substantial minority (37 per cent) “endorsed the use of violence for maintaining social values”. The study was designed to gauge sentiments on homosexual identity and gender conformity, which a majority of the respondents, unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly, consider sinful and morally wrong. The strong opinion from both faiths is perhaps what’s most unsurprising, as gay bashing, reproductive health rights and sex education are some of the few common grounds between devout Christians and Muslims.

In August 1995, for example, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nairobi and the Imam of Jamia Mosque burnt sex education books and condoms in Nairobi in protest at proposed sexual health policies that they argued were morally wrong. This placed the government in an awkward position, as it had finally acknowledged the threat HIV/AIDS and ignorance of sexual health posed, and understood the need for immediate investment in public health and sex education. It could not openly defy the most prominent religious leaders of two major faiths, so it shelved the proposals as a result.

It was a temporary win for religious leaders, but it illustrates how they had long learnt to harness their combined social power as a political tool and rallying ground. 

This would become not just sex education, as the West’s Christian Right quickly found partners in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and other countries and bumped up the innocuous-sounding “family values” agenda as an all-encompassing package. Using global networks across faiths, countries, and professions, the conservative Christian movement moved to bolster local partners, and furnish them with money, platforms, meeting points, and extensive literature to fight against sexual identity, sex education and reproductive rights at home and elsewhere. 

The stud in the room

On 7 June 2011, the future Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and his future deputy, Nancy Baraza, sat before a parliamentary panel. They had been nominated a month earlier by the Judicial Service Commission for the top roles in the judiciary, as qualified outsiders who would lead the new top judicial organ, the Supreme Court.

Among the legislators’ main questions was something that had less to do with qualifications or knowledge of jurisprudence – or at least, not obviously so. The MPs wanted to know where the two stood on critical social issues, specifically homosexuality, abortion and divorce.

They narrowed in on Mutunga’s ear stud, which he had been wearing for years. By the end of their interviews, both Mutunga and Baraza had been asked whether they were gay. Mutunga made it clear he wasn’t, and emphasised he did not discriminate against gay people, while Baraza said she didn’t have any stance on the issue.

“My stud was seen to represent my sexual orientation. I have openly supported gay rights movements on the basis of humanity of all and on sound theological arguments from Christian and Muslim texts,” the retired Chief Justice said recently.

Mutunga’s fashion choice dominated the headlines and social conservations. Online archives on the Wazua website show spirited conversations about the stud, and the suitability of a chief justice who wears one.

“Where does he live? Is he living alone? Where are his children? Are the children straight?” A user calling themselves “Impunity” asked in mid-May 2011.

Abortion and sexuality had been part of recent public discourse since the previous year, when Christian groups and some politicians found common ground working together to oppose Kenya’s proposed new constitution. While sexuality and LGBTQ+ protections were not part of the draft, they had been an issue during its drafting, especially after media reports of the first same-sex marriage between two Kenyans in London in October 2009 (they divorced two years later).

News of the marriage triggered a social debate in Kenya, with a member of the lawmaking committee telling journalists that they had told British MPs seeking the inclusion of such rights in the draft that “if we did so, a majority of Kenyans would reject the draft”. So they didn’t, but the social conversations around sexual orientation did not end.

The coalition that emerged to oppose the new laws was mainly led by the two groups, which were now pushing for the same goal but for different reasons. While politicians were mainly opposed to clauses on land and driven by political ambitions, Christian groups were driven by their opposition to perceived abortion rights in the documents, and the inclusion of Kadhi courts.

Despite losing the vote, the issues, some of which had not made it as far as the law-making phase, lingered. A year later, the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice nominees, as the likely heads of the one body that would eventually handle such pertinent social questions, would be answering questions about the same issues, and about their sexual orientation.

But the flawed correlation between Mutunga’s earring and sexual orientation might have had some historical context in a speech from a decade earlier.

“It is not right that a man should go with another man, or a woman with another woman. It is against African tradition and biblical teachings. I will not shy from warning Kenyans against the dangers,” President Daniel Arap Moi, whose political identity was deeply intertwined with Christianity, said in a speech in 1999. “Now we are seeing men wearing earrings to make it easy for them to be identified by other men,” he added.

Moi made the comments just a day after Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had also railed against homosexuality, as the topic became a favourite meeting ground for politicians, religious leaders, and media houses.

If gays didn’t exist

In 1995, the Zimbabwean government demanded the banning of a gay social organisation from the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. At the fair, Robert Mugabe, who was about to launch a re-election campaign (and a new wife), made the now infamous speech in which he said homosexuals “offend both agents of the law of nature and the morals and religious beliefs espoused by our society”. This was the major theme of his speech, and he described the Gay and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), whose membership was largely white, as “the association of sodomists and sexual perverts”.

Although there had been several similar high-profile statements by bureaucrats in the country, Mugabe had finally found the perfect punching bag about which all political sides, and major religions, could agree. Gay bashing became one of his favourite political tools both within and outside Zimbabwe, whose parliament promptly passed an anti-gay law that September.

Perhaps realising the potential of this political rhetoric, which academics term as “othering”, several presidents followed suit, including Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Sir Sereste Khama of Botswana, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, and Moi.

“Gay-bashing is one of Uganda’s big bipartisan issues,” the Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in an op-ed in The East African in October 1999. “All sides of the political and religious divide generally tend to condemn it. And on this one, unlike the Congo military adventure, no opposition politician will dare criticise the president.”

“I am now convinced that if gays didn’t exist, Movement/NRM hardliners would have invented them,” Obbo wrote in another op-ed in a Uganda daily the following month.

In Zambia, a 25-year-old called Francis Chisambisha triggered the conversation after he walked into the newsroom of The Post, an influential publication, and offered an interview. His decision to come out so publicly was driven in part by solidarity with those persecuted in the escalating homophobia in Zimbabwe and South Africa. And it triggered a storm that lasted for a few years.

The issue of sexual orientation as a common ground made political sense even to the most liberal of politicians in the region. In Zambia, former President Kaunda was forced to retract a sympathetic statement he had made and switch to condemnation.

The growing social discourse was now as familiar in Lusaka as it was among politicians in Kampala and other capitals, becoming an almost new form of negative Pan-Africanism that endures to date.

In Zimbabwe it became a lasting social and political discussion, especially after Mugabe’s predecessor, the Methodist minister Canaan Banana, was convicted of sodomy and “unnatural acts” in 1997. The charges stemmed from a defence by a former bodyguard who had killed a fellow police officer for calling him “Banana’s wife”. The charges were about rape and not consensual sex with other men – there were eleven counts, and rumours of many more. 

Soon, sexuality would become a defining and constant topic as evolving views increasingly begun redefining Christian religious structures and politics in the West, placing the African church (and with it, politics) at odds with its parent institutions, much to the benefit of politicians eager for solid platforms about social morality that could unite electorates beyond common issues.

In Uganda and East Africa, it became a two-decade-long campaign that quickly attracted white conservative evangelicals who’d now found common ground with mainstream Catholics and Muslims. They brought in money, lots of it, and extensive networks and resources. Their success cost lives and manufactured new social and cultural fears, and continues to do so to this day.

‘The right way’

According to an investigation by Open Democracy in 2020, US evangelicals invested at least US$54 million in Africa between 2007 and 2020, mainly in causes supporting “family values”, an all-encompassing term that often means imposing bans on abortion, homosexuality, and women’s reproductive rights. Uganda is among the societies that are most receptive to the idea of banning homosexuality – going a step further by imposing harsh sentences – and where moral and legal outrage about it has been a major issue since the mid to late 1990s. 

Public conversations about homosexuals in Kenya seem to have begun around the same time, perhaps inspired by the sensationalism and the public interest the issue had aroused in Zimbabwe and Uganda. Starting from June 1998, the Daily Nation and the Standard ran several articles, including features that included gay men using pseudonyms.

While the headlines are conservative and a tad ignorant, the stories within them are illuminating. Kiama interviewed more than ten men from all walks of life, including an 18-year-old, a 42-year-old petrol attendant, and a 55-year-old casino manager. The interviews covered sex life, sexual orientation, commercial sex, and the struggles of gay men forced to marry women to hide their sexuality.

In an editorial prefacing a two-part series by the journalist Wanjira Kiama and published in June 1998, the Daily Nation included comments from a 37-year-old accountant about what he would do if he found out his son was gay. “I would disown him before I cause him grievous harm. I would rather sire a cow than a homosexual,” the man said. 

But while the paper may have presented homosexuality as just “taking root”, Kiama traced key moments in the history of gay associations in Kenya that dispute the idea of sexual identity as imported. “In the 1960s, there was an attempt to form a gay club in Nairobi, when men met at the Pop-In restaurant (now closed),” she wrote. “In the early 1970s, another Nairobi restaurant was popular until street fights erupted between women sex workers and gay men.”

Club 1900, which became a popular hangout for the LGBTQ+ community, was closed down by the authorities, although they cited drugs and drug use as the reason.

From the late 90s, the press was littered with stories about gays: in 2003, a gay cruise ship was prevented from docking in Mombasa; the scandals surrounding the election of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church, in 2003; Anglican and other mainstream churches banning congregations from accepting funding from American churches; prison officers discussing rape; the marriage of two Kenyans in the diaspora.

Kenya meets the Christian Right

In 2002, Bishop Simon Mac’Onyango, an Eldoret-based pastor, sent an email to Scott Lively of the Abiding Truth Ministries (ATM) seeking support for his church, Present Truth Ministry. Mac’Onyango’s cold contact was driven, mainly, by the simple fact that there was some similarity between the names of the two churches. Mac’Onyango’s request coincided with Lively’s plans; he had been invited to participate in the East Africa leg of the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) 50-nation outreach.

Already a known figure in anti-LGBT circles, Lively was also widely known for his 1995 book, The Pink Swastika – in which he blamed gay people for the Holocaust – and for his growing work across the globe where he used the pulpit to rile against reproductive rights and homosexuality. His initial pet topic had been abortion, but he pivoted to homosexuality in the early 1990s.

Lively was only on his second visit to the continent: during the first one, three months earlier, he had been a keynote speaker at a conference in Uganda organised by Stephen Langa and Family Life Network. Although that conference was billed as being against “pornography and obscenity”, it would soon morph into its real form as an influential platform for driving antigay rhetoric with subsequent gatherings such as the “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual’s Agenda” in March 2009, where Lively would promote his 1995 book and his conspiracy theories.

But in 2002, he had solid contacts in Uganda and none in Kenya, even growing concerned when he did not receive invites in Nairobi which he had assumed “would be the hub of pro-family activities in the nation”.

So he accepted Mac’Onyango’s invite.

After his visit to Uganda, Lively crossed the border and arrived in Eldoret by road, spending more than a week with Mac’Onyango and his church.

In Eldoret, Lively’s organisation donated US$1,500 for registration fees, office space, and furniture. Lively himself saw the opportunity presented by the visit: “ATM now has a ministry partner in Kenya dedicated to promoting Christian family life as a solution to social problems and to opposing pornography, promiscuity, ‘safe sex’ condom distribution programs, abortion and homosexuality,” he wrote during his 2002 trip.

Although he and other right-wing campaigners would find extensive support in Kampala, most prominently on pulpits and in State House and Parliament, Kenya was an imperfect hunting ground. Despite having its own home-grown religious and political voices attempting to drive conversations around sexual identity, it still did not become as mainstream an issue as it did in Uganda. 

The verdict is still out on the debate, but I hope for a useful, honest dialogue. Over time, this ongoing conversation has spurred continued advocacy from both sides, resonating in public discourse, parliamentary deliberations, and legal proceedings. The evolution of this dialogue reflects a growing engagement with the issues at hand, paving the way for more nuanced and informed discussions. As the conversation unfolds, there is optimism for a constructive exchange that leads to meaningful progress and understanding.