Sunday, April 19, 2015

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Shuga: Gay Rights from the Ground Up

While presidents and preachers bang their heads together over gay rights, Kenya's teen drama Shuga will hopefully advance respect from the grassroots up.
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Pour some Shuga on me: the cast of Shuga's first series.

Over the past few years, the issue of gay rights in Africa has become particularly heated with presidents, preachers and global petitioners all wading in. Kenya has been no exception to this trend. Incidents of sexual abuse and ‘corrective rape’ in Nairobi are on the increase and 2010 saw mass attacks against gay men. Meanwhile, Catholic and Islamic leaders have united in anti-gay campaigns, proclaiming that homosexuality should be “punishable by death”, and Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently asserted that all “homosexuals should be arrested and taken to relevant authorities” (although later claimed his comments had been misunderstood). Against this, a number of commentators, human rights groups and Western leaders have been similarly vocal in their condemnation of anti-homosexuality.

Amidst this sound and fury, the makers of Kenya’s teen drama Shuga have been quietly preparing for series two. The second instalment of the show about young adults growing up Nairobi is set to begin on Valentine’s Day and will introduce half a dozen new characters, one of whom – Rayban – is gay.

Early-evening teen fiction may seem a minor irrelevance in the grand battle currently being played out around gay rights. But unpacking the nature of anti-gay sentiment in Kenya and examining the historical emergence of positive gay attitudes in other places suggests that it will not be top-down exertions of power and pressure that engender meaningful change, but the far subtler effects of sensitive grassroots activism, a major part of which may well be shows like Shuga.

A sticky situation

Indeed, recent high-level pressure from the UK and US on African governments to recognise gay rights badly misfired. Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, amongst others, responded by directly flying in the face of Western criticism and publicly promising that homosexuality would never be legalised, while the Ugandan government condemned the West’s “bullying mentality” and “patronising, colonial rhetoric”. If anything, Western pressure has galvanised anti-gay sentiment in some areas.

Furthermore, activists in Kenya have noted that human rights arguments per se are usually vastly out of touch with how people actually feel and can even be counterproductive in advancing acceptance of homosexuality.

We can begin to understand why this is the case by examining the nature and roots of homophobia in Kenya and much of Africa.

Understanding homophobia

Kenya, as is the case in much of the continent, has a rich history of same-sex practices, and anthropologists believe that at least four Kenyan ethnic groups – the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kamba and Kisii – traditionally respected woman-to-woman marriages. Although homosexuality and homophobia are now inextricably intertwined with politics, religion and socio-economic issues, it was largely through Kenya’s experiences of colonialism and de-colonialism that homosexuality came to be seen as un-Kenyan and taboo.

Kenya’s colonial masters enacted sections 162-5 of the penal code which criminalise same-sex acts. And Kenya’s anti-colonialist struggle established many of the gendered norms that continue to inform notions of masculinity and femininity today.

After decades of colonial emasculation, the fight for independence was construed as an expression of African hypermasculinity while compromise was seen as innately feminine. In a sentiment shared by Kenya’s nationalists, Obed Muteza, mentor to many Zimbabwean nationalist leaders asserted “the choice before me is simple; am I am man or a woman?”.

Aggressive masculinity and virility continue to be associated with notions of Kenyan independence and pride. And to these masculine ideals, homosexuality is anathema. Same-sex practices are thought to be innately Western and un-African, and Western-led attempts to pressure Kenya into accepting homosexuality are considered to be colonialist and emasculating in the most profound, private and intimate of ways. Human rights – perceived by many to be Western – encounter similar resistance.

Grassroots rising

Given that homosexuality is broadly associated with Western colonialism, high-level Western pressure will clearly not be the key to advancing popular acceptance of homosexuality. Nor is acceptance likely to be driven by popular African political leaders from above.

The shift, it seems, will have to come from the grassroots and civil society itself. Indeed, this has been the trend with many gay rights movements across the world in which change began with the broadening of recognition of gay people on the ground. This recognition, in many cases, enabled the fostering of greater respect and acceptance of homosexuality through much time and considerable effort. This, in turn, led to the actual enactment of gay rights at the top.

While there have been prominent gay figures in the US for decades, for example, it was only in 2003 that thirteen states actually decriminalised same-sex practices.

In fact, even if rights were to be enacted, they would mean little if they lacked popular legitimacy and could be violated with impunity at the grassroots level. South Africa, for example, boasts one of the world’s most extensive charters of LGBT rights yet many areas are currently experiencing “epidemic” levels of anti-gay attacks.

Just a spoonful of Shuga

Ultimately, with or without legal rights, changing the lived realities of gay Africans requires a broad shift of popular attitudes.

Altering popular attitudes in Kenya will be no mean feat. Many Kenyans very rarely encounter openly gay people and consider homosexuality to be synonymous with paedophilia, disease and deviance. In a recent study of attitudes in a Kenyan community, 99% of the 600 surveyed believed that it was impossible for same-sex partnerships to be loving or long-term.

It would be naïve to think a single sympathetic gay character on television could easily change these understandings, but historical and psychological studies suggest that shows like Shuga could be a great cause of hope.

Historians of the US gay rights movement, for example, emphasise the absolutely central role that fictional gay characters on television played in cultivating popular support for the movement, while numerous psychological studies point to the enormous potential for media representations to influence opinion, especially when viewers’ themselves have little direct exposure to a certain issue or group.

Numerous studies (albeit conducted in the West) have found that watching fictional portrayals of gay people for just a short amount of time can profoundly influence viewers’ long-term perceptions of, and social attitudes towards, the entire LGBT community as well as provide invaluable sources of pride to gay viewers.

Encountering homosexual individuals on television can have a very strong humanising effect and render gay people real, familiar and sympathetic to viewers. This exposure to the gay community, despite being fictional, can begin to counteract negative stereotypes, and some studies even suggest that seeing gay role models in the media has a more significant effect on attitudes than even explicit teaching in schools and families.

None of this of course promises that the introduction of the gay character Rayban to Shuga will shift attitudes and lead to meaningful change. But, if done sympathetically and sensitively, we can be hopeful that – while the world’s presidents, preachers and activists bang their heads together over rights and grievances the hearts and minds of Shuga’s young Kenyan viewers might be opened.

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Great article, great angle albeit the seemingly unresearched bits about same sex marriage in the said ethnic groups. the marriages were more ceremonial than(if not completely) non-sexual.

Personally, I feel, like in any great revolution, the effect starts with the affected. Activists can only do so much if the people whose rights they are advocating sit and watch. We(the gay community) all want to be treated as equal members of society, I'm not aware of any gay person who doesn't desire to be out of that dusty closet and stop enduring the constant "why don't we see you with a girlfriend?" or "when are you going to bring a girl home?" remarks from friends and family. However, the equal treatment will never materialize if gay guys just sit there and entertain the ill swntiments of those near and dear to them towards their own kind. The change starts primarily with us.

As for the psychological effect t.v and other popular media have on the opinion of homophobes towards the gays, the result is almost negligible in generations other than 29 and below. Telenovela soap operas are a t.v staple here in Kenya and most if not all of them have a flamboyant openly gay character. given majority of the viewrs of such programmes are female,and that no other kind of t.v or radio programme watched or listened to by men have gay personas, multimedia approach is quite weak unless things change and hopefully Shuga pioneers this change. A point to note however, is the disgust and negativity these gay characters attract from the older women(30 and above) who watch these shows. My mother's friend/neighbour usually makes comments such as "huyo nikimpata nitamuua!"(if I got a hold of him I would kill him) while my mother sneers and calls them "sissies". The situation is dire and things will definitely change if the gays organize and execute well-timed mass action regardless the consequence. It has to start somewhere

this is a perfect example of the brain washings that go on in the UK--this mans mind  has beem bought corrupttrd  & reduced to slavery of the most repugnamt weakness.Observe  where he got his "education"-- a prime list of anti-God fearing institutions--the colonialsts are wealthy--strong-- & smart--as they were in the days of the slave ships--they connive wirh all their "laws" & "legality" I remind you they said it was "legal" to won a african man women ot child--not in their "wisdoms" they say its "leagl" to allow the most vile  perversions against Gods  laws-- i leave you with this fact--in the USA 2 men-- Doug  Wirth & George Harasz--"married" each other--then were allowed to "adopt" 9 young school boys-- they are now known to have raped the boys in order to  turn them into homosexuals-- is this what Africa needs?? Presidente Hugo Chavez has warned for many years now--resist the imperialists & their corrupt reality--keep the laws of God-- not the laws of the UK or USA

;ust FYI * the colonialists* are the ones who brought christianity to most part of africa and africans did embrace it even though it was an *unfrican*
In Few places in Africa like south africa some people still rape little young girls thinking that it will cure them of AIDS ?? Is this an african thing since *the so called wealthy colonialists* do not practise this? South africa , congo, etc...
Another I want to point out is that * rapists* when they are raping someone of the opposite sex, this does not mean that the other *normal*straights are suppose to do the same thing why is it that when we come accross a rapist of same sex, all of a sudden all gay people do the same??!! A rapist is not straight or gay, he is a rapist, a mentally ill person. A gay person is a person who wants to love and be loved my another same sex person and wants to live respected and in peace like any other citizen. They muslims, christian, hindu, etc.. And they live in every and single society since the human race exists..

The same sex marriage history is debatable. Some anthropologists claim they were more sexual, some say less. Who knows? Not important now though - point is where we are now. Tings gotta change.

  James,This is a great article. The international support from the media and CSO is key in advancing gay rights in Africa, where most people are, if anything, afraid of voicing their honest positive opinion on the matter. I find it peculiar that most African men react aggresively at the thought of 2 men/women being together, but are very keen on having a threesome, disgusting double standards. I believe women would be key in advancing gay rights in places like Kenya, especially when supported by journalists like you who are able to explain the situation in such an informed, practical and rights oriented manner.Lovely article, I will definitely use it as an advocacy tool.Sharon (Violet- Shuga cast)

OMG YOU'RE IN SHUGA????! I know a celeb wooot wooot. Great stuff, keep the flame alive and if you ever need help in the advocacy of Gay rights(from a music angle) halla at a brotha, we're trying to start an awareness programme at Penya Africa so I guess a collaborative effort would be benficial to all? Again, kudos :-)