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Don't Let Homophobic Extremists Hijack Obama's Kenya Visit

Published in: The Huffington Post

How did a small, fringe group of homophobic extremists hijack media coverage of US President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya?

President Obama arrives in Kenya today for a business event - the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. He will also hold discussions with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Given the threat posed to Kenya by the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab, those talks are likely to focus on security.

But from both Kenyan and international media coverage of the visit, you'd think Obama was coming to keynote a conference on homosexuality.

In May, a group of Kenyan Evangelical pastors began calling on Obama not to include "the homosexuality debate" in his agenda while visiting Kenya. Several politicians took up the call. Media outlets then became consumed by the question of whether Obama will "say something" about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights during his brief visit to Kenya.

As activists who have worked for many years on both LGBTI rights and other human rights issues, we find the conversation unhelpful - and bordering on ridiculous.

Kenyan LGBTI people, who have built a strong movement over a decade, don't need Obama to speak for them. They can and do speak for themselves, loudly and unflinchingly, including in televised debates with Kenya's most notorious homophobes.

LGBTI activists are divided on whether Obama should address sexual orientation and gender identity during his visit; some favor Obama making a statement in support of equal rights, others are concerned about backlash, and still others are entirely indifferent.

But when Obama leaves, the movement will continue with the same priorities that it had before his visit. It will conduct outreach to police, health workers, and religious leaders. It will work to ensure freedom of association for LGBTI rights groups. It will defend people who have been arbitrarily arrested and abused--including two men currently on trial in Kwale County for "unnatural offenses" after being arrested on the basis of a rumor and subjected to humiliating anal exams, whose plight has been ignored by the media frenzy surrounding Obama's visit.

The LGBTI movement will continue reminding the Kenyan government that it must uphold a commitment it made at the UN Human Rights Council to pass comprehensive non-discrimination legislation, and that it must abide by a 2014 African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights resolution to end violence and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. These priorities are Kenyan and African, and have nothing to do with Obama.

Media coverage dominated by hypothetical questions around LGBTI rights has also obscured the fact that there are many other pressing human rights issues in Kenya that deserve scrutiny. As President Kenyatta himself said when asked by a journalist about Obama and "gay rights," there are other important things to talk about. For journalists who really care about human rights, it might be valuable to interrogate where Obama and the US administration stand on extrajudicial killings by police and enforced disappearances of terrorism suspects in Kenya--allegations that implicate the US-supported Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.

Journalists could ask what Obama will say about threats to civil society groups -- including groups that government officials branded as "terrorists" because they document abuses and support victims of counterterrorism operations at the coast. The media could also look into Kenya's mistreatment of Somali refugees, impunity for the 2007-2008 post-election violence, and debilitating levels of corruption that undermine the ability of security forces to effectively address terrorism. All of these issues affect millions of Kenyans and go to the heart of Kenya's most fundamental problems--lack of accountability and political will to protect the rule of law.

Homophobia and transphobia come and go in waves in Kenya. LGBTI groups in Kenya remain vigilant and concerned about how their rights will be protected under Kenya's constitution. But the circus atmosphere surrounding the Obama visit, complete with proposed "naked marches" to protest Obama's support for equal rights, should not be taken as an indication that there will be a long-term uptake in anti-LGBTI policy in Kenya.

The media obsession with Obama and gay rights in Kenya gives too much credit to an extremist fringe. It fails to acknowledge the agency of Kenyan LGBTI activists, who have more pressing concerns than Obama. And it mutes the voices of victims of other human rights abuses in Kenya. All of which is rather convenient for a government that stands to gain when no one asks the hard questions about human rights.

Neela Ghoshal is Senior Researcher in the LGBT Rights Program and Leslie Lefkow is Deputy Director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

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