NAIROBI—When the Nigerian writer Unoma Azuah was growing up in the Asaba Niger Delta, she once asked her grandmother about a teenage boy in her village with an effeminate aura whom others would tease, calling him a girl. Her grandmother replied that she didn’t understand why people bullied him.
“In her time, there were men who dressed as women, and they were seen as spiritual people, with a special gift,” Azuah told me. When Azuah was young, her grandmother would joke about a man who took a wife but spent most of his time with his best friend, another man, in private. “It was nothing outrageous,” Azuah said.
But when Britain colonized large swaths of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Azuah’s grandmother was growing up, it imposed penal codes that punished actions “against the order of nature”—code for homosexual acts—with up to 14 years in prison. These would become the first anti-gay laws on the continent, laws that are now being targeted by African LGBTQ-rights activists who argue that homophobia, not homosexuality, was an import from the West.
That effort suffered a setback this week, as Kenya’s High Court unanimously ruled that the country’s own British-era penal code against unnatural acts, adopted into law at Kenya’s 1963 independence, does not violate the country’s 2010 constitution. That document explicitly guarantees equal protection to all people, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination, as well as requires affirmative-action programs for minorities and marginalized groups.