It was a brave campaign against the odds that will not have a Hollywood ending. However, David Kuria, forced to withdraw from elections in Kenya, has already smashed barriers as the country’s first openly gay politician.
Kuria dismayed his supporters when he announced that he could not finish the senate race because of a lack of funds to cover logistics and his personal security.
He had received threatening text messages saying he would bring “a curse to the land.”
Yet, while he lost the battle, Kuria has won praise for moving the needle in a country in which homosexuality is illegal and, the UN said last year, “largely considered to be taboo and repugnant to [the] cultural values and morality.”
The 40-year-old was the first openly gay black person in Africa to run for political office outside South Africa, according to the Kaleidoscope Trust, a non-profit organization defending international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. In the end, his push for the senate seat in Kiambu County, near the capital, Nairobi, never reached a critical mass. Declaring his withdrawal late last month, Kuria explained that his online fundraising campaign had achieved only about 4 percent of its target.
“It is one of the saddest decisions I have had to make during my years working as a human rights activist,” he said. “I had seen changes in the way our people in the villages view gay people. For many people, gay people and gay rights are perceived through the mediated interpretation of politicians and religious leaders. For the first time, it was possible to talk with the people, answer their questions, as well as point out the nexus areas of different forms of marginalization, including poverty and other challenges that affect them, too.”
There was plenty of opposition in Kenya’s conservative Christian heartlands. Kenyan Member of Parliament and former minister for foreign affairs Moses Wetangula warned of a revolt if Kuria was elected, saying an openly gay man should not “have an opportunity or privilege to lead a country that is founded on religious morality.”
The independent candidate was sent hostile text messages attempting to blow him off course.
“The messages were largely religious in nature: They tended to have a note of desperation in them,” Kuria said. “It is like they had expected massive rejection by the people of our candidature. When that did not happen, they threatened not just me, but also the people who would vote for me.”
“They were of the opinion that if I continued with the campaign, I would bring ‘a curse to the land.’ It sounded like it was important for them to stop this from happening,” he said.
One of the financial burdens for Kuria was personal security, a requirement for all candidates in Kenya’s volatile political climate.
“We had created a narrative of being outsiders to the political system and that narrative was beginning to build some serious traction, it was even beginning to scare me somewhat,” he said. “Naturally, being a gay candidate, any threat could be explained as being a homophobic attack, hence the need for added security.”
Under Kenyan law, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail, though police say they would have to catch someone in the act to prosecute. Denouncing gay people can be a vote winner. A survey last year by the Kenya Human Rights Commission found that only 18 percent of LGBT Kenyans had revealed their sexual orientation to their families; of these, 89 percent were subsequently disowned.