KIAMBU, Kenya (Reuters) - An anti-poverty campaigner has become Kenya’s first openly gay man to run for political office, but David Kuria Mbote faces a challenging path as he tries to dispel taboos in the largely conservative Christian nation in a race for a senate seat.
If elected to the Kenyan senate, Mbote, 40, would be Africa’s only openly homosexual black man to hold national office, according to the Kaleidoscope Trust, a non-profit organization focusing on gay rights.
But a cabinet minister warned of a “revolt’ if Mbote were elected, a clear sign that attitudes towards the gay community in Kenya, reflected across much of Africa, remain vehemently anti-gay.
“It’s not a vote-getter,” said Mbote, a prominent gay rights activist who is seeking a senate seat in Kiambu County, which neighbors the capital.
“If anything, you say you hate gay people to get votes,” he told Reuters.
Homosexuality is illegal in most African countries and same-sex relationships are often seen as a Western fad and an affront to traditional African culture and moral values.
Under Kenyan law, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but police say they would have to catch someone in the act to prosecute successfully.
When Uganda and Malawi tried to introduce tough anti-homosexuality laws, outraged Western donors threatened to cut aid, pitting them against fiery local politicians and African church leaders.
Neighboring Uganda is planning to pass an anti-gay law, criticized by rights groups for its draconian penalties, including life imprisonment in certain circumstances.
But the threats have done little to influence mostly anti-gay attitudes in the highest levels of government.
Kenyan Trade Minister Moses Wetangula has warned there would be a “revolt” if voters elected Mbote, telling the BBC that homosexuality “simply doesn’t fly” in Kenya.
An openly gay man should not “have an opportunity or privilege to lead a country that is founded on religious morality”, Wetangula said in reference to Mbote, who is running as an independent candidate.
Even if his sexual orientation were not a factor, Mbote is unlikely to win in a county where vast sums of money are needed to mobilize 1.6 million inhabitants to vote.
Mbote’s candidacy has been covered by all the major Kenyan newspapers, though the focus has been on his sexual orientation rather than his 5-point policy plan on how he would govern.
There are no official estimates of how many Kenyans are gay but anecdotal evidence suggests those who are openly gay in Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital Nairobi has increased.
Yet the bespectacled politician - who was earlier this month given an award by the government for his work on reducing stigma towards HIV sufferers - feels the only relevance of homosexuality to his senate bid is “honesty”.
“If we want to change this country, then we’ve got to play new politics and the people who can do that are people who are outsiders of the system and the establishment,” Mbote said.
But he faces an uphill battle to change attitudes.
A 2011 survey by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) found that only 18 percent of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender Kenyans had revealed their sexual orientation to their families. Of these, 89 per cent were subsequently disowned.
Traders and shoppers at a food market filled with women in colorful aprons selling bananas, tomatoes and other goods in the town Kiambu just a short drive from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi said they were encouraged by Mbote’s policies but that his lifestyle made him virtually unelectable.
“We don’t want a generation of gay people in our town,” said 52-year old Anne Ngugi while shopping for spinach and peas.
“His policies are okay but he has moral decay.”
However, many of the younger people Reuters spoke to in Kiambu said Mbote’s homosexuality was not a key issue for them.
“All I care about is that he becomes a good leader,” 22-year old phone-seller Jane Mwangi said.
Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Paul Casciato