Leading gay rights activists from Kenya and Uganda are calling for Pope Francis to be more overt about his support for LGBT communities, claiming that a small word from him will make a huge difference to their lives.
As the Pope visited Nairobi on day three of his first official tour of Africa, prominent Kenyan gay rights activist Eric Gitari called in to visit VICE News in London.
"[Francis is] not homophobic himself, but he needs to be more forthright," Gitari said. "I hope he will be more forthright in Uganda when he goes there today because they have a very historical record of political homophobia."
Tens of thousands of Kenyans packed into a stadium in the capital city to hear the Latin American pope's address on Friday, during which he called for young people not to give in to the temptation of "tribalism, corruption and drugs." Earlier in the day he visited a slum district where he railed against inequality and the "dreadful injustice of urban exclusion."
Gitari, who has been persecuted in Kenya for his sexuality, said the Pope needed to stand against the injustice of the LGBT community's exclusion in Africa too.
The Catholic Church's leadership within Kenya often preaches against homosexuality, which Gitari argued is inconsistent with the oft-repeated Vatican message that criminalization is harmful because it encourages "discrimination, exclusion, and violence."
Gitari said Francis had the power in his hands to create a lot more tolerance. The pontiff's famous 2013 "Who am I to judge?" comment about homosexuality had been embraced by young people across Kenya, with a group even printing the phrase on T-shirts to wear at Friday's mass. The pope could keep that momentum going, said Gitari, by vocalizing a "consistent message that peace and respect is the path to prosperity, economically, for the country."
Gitari is the director of Kenya's National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He is currently leading a challenge against Kenyan authorities after they were accused of forcing two men to undergo anal exams to discover whether they were gay. The next hearing is set for Tuesday.
"Those two boys [in the case], their lives are fucked up," Gitari said. "They are on the margins of depression and suicide. But then again, that doesn't make sexy news for international media. What is sexy is legislation being passed."
The activist — who lives in Nairobi and whose grandfather was a Mau Mau fighter — has faced persecution himself. In May, he was outed by a Kenyan tabloid, which ran his photo along with nine others under the headline "Top Gays."
In Kenya, anyone convicted of homosexuality can face up to 14 years in prison. Between 2010 and 2014, 595 cases of homosexuality were "investigated" — some ended with prison sentences. Gitari said a lot of his friends have been arrested and imprisoned.
"They are actively enforcing these existing sodomy laws in a way that is very, very unconstitutional and in a way that is really effecting people's lives," Gitari said.
This week, a new report by the international legal charity Human Dignity Trust revealed that 2.9 billion people are currently living in countries where homosexuality is illegal. Of these, 2 billion are living in Commonwealth countries.
Pope Francis arrived in Kenya on Wednesday, staying until Friday afternoon when he traveled across to Uganda, another country with a large population of Catholics.
Ugandan LGBT activists have also called for the pope to be more explicit in his support for them. Ugandan gay rights activist Vincent — who doesn't want us to publish his surname because of security fears — is a member of an organization called the Rainbow Catholic Network Of Africa.
In a statement emailed to VICE News on Friday morning, which he asked us to share "far and wide," the group appealed to Pope Francis directly. "Today we ask you to join us and speak out in solidarity with lesbians, gays, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons who are living in fear and are victims of their community's rejection or religious leader's comments of hate and discrimination and lack of pity," it said.
"LGBTI African Catholics have run away from church and from receiving sacraments because of the hate and ignorance speech being preached by priests. Instead we still remember your words 'Who am I to judge?' as the example of heart openness we hope to receive from our local religious community leaders. Jesus Christ preached about love and its message came also for all of us who are tired or discriminated by their communities, but in the present our African holy church has turned into a place where only a few can be considered as true children of God.
"We urge you to bridge the gap between LGBTI persons and religious leaders so that we are all welcome in the house of God. We must not discriminate people, everyone must have a clear access to spiritual nourishment provided by the church. We want to end one of the worst diseases in Africa: the epidemic of homophobia."
The LGBT communities across East Africa are no longer as isolated as they once were. Slowly but surely, individuals and groups are becoming aware of their power and making efforts to combine their expertise.
Gitari said he has been sharing information, ideas, and experience with other activist groups from Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania over the past few years, and has noticed the differences between the challenges each country's LGBT citizens are facing.
"[Uganda] has a different legal infrastructure that makes it easier for politicians to legislate on homophobia," he said.
In Kenya, he noted that far fewer people will demonstrate in anti-gay people protests. "But at the same time the Ugandan movement has a very much more politically active and violent level of resilience compared to Kenya." Meanwhile, "homophobia is worse in Tanzania than Uganda, people don't know that."
Going forward, Gitari said that the law is the best way to attempt to change attitudes, and the current case he is bringing is only one stepping stone in a larger journey.
"Kenya will have equal rights within my lifetime," Gitari said. "I wouldn't define or restrict that to mean gay marriage because right now no one is working on gay marriage in Kenya as a priority. What people feel is a priority and what I see happening within my lifetime is that laws that inform or block people from accessing equal rights will be removed. Deeper reform will have an effect on society. It will translate into opportunities to engage in deeper conversations with the public on equality, inclusivity of LGBT, and other equality groups."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd