Governmental leaders from around the world have issued statements of sympathy for the LGBT community and condemnation of homophobia.
But not in Africa.
As in the United States, where Republican politicians have erased LGBT people from the Orlando narrative, only one African head of state—South African President Jacob Zuma—mentioned the victims’ predominantly queer identities.
The silence is perhaps unsurprising, as gay sex remains illegal in many countries on the continent. Indeed, adding further insult to injury, just four days after the Orlando massacre, the Kenyan High Court upheld the government’s use of forced anal exams to ascertain whether men are homosexual—a degrading and thoroughly ineffective procedure that has been condemned by all major international human rights organizations.
A small vigil in Nairobi stood in stark contrast to the massive gatherings held across the globe.
There, a place where gay sex is illegal and social stigma against queer expression remains high, a few dozen LGBTI activists and community members crowded into a walled-off courtyard at the end of a gated street to grieve and take stock.
“The silence has been deafening,” David Kuria, a local LGBTI activist and Kenya’s first openly gay candidate to run for political office, said of the muted response from media, society, and government. “It feeds into the narrative that this is one incident where perhaps the government agrees with the terrorists.”
Immah Reid, who co-organized the vigil, said that “not even our parents have called us [in the wake of the Orlando attacks]. We’re now an easy target. This has shown others that it’s okay to kill and hate those you don’t like.”
U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec stopped by the local vigil. Standing before a wall of messages to the victims, and in front of a Voice of America camera, he said that, in fact, Kenyan officials had expressed concern—in private. “It’s been quite an impressive outpouring from Kenyan leadership,” he told the courtyard.
Activists were not impressed.
“Gays are considered another species in Kenya,” a queer woman piped up from the darkened courtyard under the open sky after the cameras and U.S. officials had left. “There’s an agreement that gays don’t need compassion.”
Kenyan media has also erased the Orlando victims’ queer identities. Some outlets have covered the attack without mentioning that Pulse is a gay nightclub. Others have included the LGBTI component by running newswire stories written from abroad. “The Kenyan media blackout is real,” a vigil goer said as the discussion’s somber mood shifted to anger.
Kenya is no stranger to homophobic attacks, and certainly no stranger to terrorism. In 1998, a bombing linked to Osama bin Laden took down the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing 224 people and injuring more than 4,000. Al-Shabaab attacks on the Westgate shopping mall in 2013 and Garissa University College in 2015 are still fresh in people’s minds.
Kenya’s top officials often release multiple statements condemning mass shootings and bombings in the West, emphasizing in essence that such attacks could happen anywhere to deflect criticism from their own patchy counterterrorism record. But not this time. Reactions to the Orlando shooting have been vague or non-existent, not just in Kenya but across the continent.
In a short statement adapted for Twitter, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Amina Mohamed offered her country’s “deep condolences to the Government & people of the United States following gun attack at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.” Subsequent tweets expressed regret for “the loss of 50 innocent civilians,” “heartfelt sympathies to those who lost loved ones,” and “unequivocal condemnation for the despicable act of violence” but made no reference to the queer identities of those targeted and killed. “Kenya stands in solidarity with the United States Govt in efforts to apprehend the criminals & strengthening the war on violent extremism,” she concluded.
The African Union released a similar statement reaffirming “the AU’s strong rejection of all acts of terrorism and violent extremism by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes,” while making no reference to the crime’s homophobic nature.
The only exception—as usual—was South Africa, which stands alone in the continent in recognizing same-sex marriage and supporting LGBT equality at the United Nations. “The attack, which was targeted at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community, shows extreme levels of intolerance. South Africa fully recognises the rights of the LGBTI community and condemns in the strongest possible terms any violent attack targeted at the community,” President Zuma’s statement read.
The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), a national umbrella organization that works with sexual and gender minorities, released on op-ed to be published next week in a Kenyan newspaper, stating “When Westgate happened to us, the world stood with Kenya. When Garissa happened, the world, including Americans, ‘was Garissa.’ When the Paris attacks happened, Kenyans ‘were Paris’ … but now, we are silent … World leaders and most of humanity has weighed in. But we are quiet.”
Back at the vigil, a rainbow array of cloth hung from cemented bottle shards protecting the courtyard’s perimeter. A sheet displaying the Orlando victims’ names grew dim as candles melted into the floor and extinguished, one by one.
“We know we are at risk, and what this foul act of terror in Orlando has done is take that fear and make it concrete,” Anthony Oluoch, who co-organized the Nairobi vigil, said.
The group then discussed security precautions for Nairobi’s queer-frequented bar and nightclub.
“The current climate in Nairobi is that anything could spark violence. People will look for any excuse to attack based on tribe, gender, sexual orientation. Am I safe?” one person asked.
The courtyard swelled as people came and went, smoke swirling around a communal pot of cigarette ash that served as its centerpiece.
The discussion then turned to a heated debate over whether Nairobi should host its own pride parade. “What, right now, are we proud enough about to march?” Oluoch asked the small circle. “What is the point of marching if I can’t hold the hand of the person I love?”
As the last candles burned out and group consensus all but vetoed the idea of a pride parade in the near future, one proponent persisted.
“We should parade, just to show we exist,” he said.