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In Africa, homosexuality emerging as hot-button issue

In Kenya, Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently told supporters in the Nairobi slum of Kibera that he would order police to arrest gays. In Uganda and Malawi, debate is rising over the legality of homosexuality.

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Odinga said he intended to clarify that the Constitution was not, as alleged by opponents, going to legalize same-sex marriages.

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Yet even this statement stops short of retracting the statement attributed to Odinga of calling for the arrest of gays.

A regional trend

In Uganda, where homosexuality is already illegal under British colonial-era laws, the parliament briefly debated and then withdrew a proposed bill that would have imposed lengthy sentences, and in some cases the death penalty, for homosexuals.

In Malawi, an openly gay couple was convicted in May under a colonial-era law banning "unnatural acts" and sentenced to 14 years in prison, before international pressure prompted the government to set the sentences aside.

And in Kenya, as the country prepared to vote last summer in a referendum to establish the new Constitution – an attempt to prevent a return of the leadership crisis that followed ethnic clashes after the December 2007 elections – it was conservative Kenyan churches (urged on by the Pat Robertson-funded American Center for Law and Justice) who opposed the Constitution, arguing incorrectly that the new Constitution would have legalized abortion and same-sex marriages.

Converging reasons

Wanyeki Muthoni, executive director of the independent Kenya Human Rights Commission, says that the tumult over homosexuality is the result of three converging trends.

First, Kenyan gays are becoming more politically active and vocal, lobbying hard for "basic equality and nondiscrimination." Second, the global debate over the ordination of gay priests, increasingly accepted in Europe and the United States, has caused a conservative backlash here in Africa, with African churches largely rejecting those reforms. Finally, African churches have been radicalized by what Ms. Muthoni charges is "the ever-increasing influence of homophobic American Evangelicals in Africa."

For Kenyan gays, Odinga's statement means tough times ahead.

"Harassment has been going on. Yesterday, two people were arrested by cops for homosexuality; three people were arrested the day before, but they managed to get out of jail," says Zawadi Nyongo, an independent social justice activist. "I have been receiving hate mail myself, through e-mail, and I'm not even on the front lines."

"We're all baffled by this," she adds. "How can a government that is trying to help people to get tested for HIV and to seek treatment, how can thatsame government talk about arresting gays?"

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