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May 13, 2014

African Voices for Equality: Dr. Willy Mutunga

By Trevor Allen

Recently, Africa has become a hotbed for homophobic legislation, putting LGBT people and allies at great risk. But a growing number of prominent Africans are breathing fresh air into the debate that’s been stifled by repression and narrow dogma. Human Rights First's factsheet, “African Voices for Equality,” highlights brave men and women who are taking a stand in countries where egregious intolerance and violence against LGBT people and allies persist.

During a 2012 FIDA (Federation for Women Lawyers) ceremony in Uganda, the newly elected Chief Justice of the Kenyan Supreme Court, Dr. Willy Mutunga, boldly denounced the marginalization of LGBT Africans.

“Gay rights are human rights,” Mutunga said in front of Uganda’s Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, preceding by two months Secretary Hillary Clinton’s similar remarks that would become famous.  Although his statement would not be enough to stop the Speaker from resurrecting Uganda’s anti-gay bill a year and a half later, on that day Chief Justice Mutunga joined the small group of brave human rights defenders who are standing up for justice and human dignity for LGBT communities throughout the continent.

Chief Justice Mutunga has been both positively and negatively received in Kenya. Although the Church voiced major concerns with his nomination in 2011, an overwhelming 80% of the Kenyan population voiced their approval. A true reformer, he has addressed both political and civil issues, from impunity for corruption to the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

As both Uganda and Nigeria have increased their efforts to further criminalize homosexuality, and as countries like Ethiopia consider public events demonizing LGBT Africans, voices for equality are needed more than ever. Willy Mutunga’s public support of LGBT rights offers hope for judicial protection of the rights of LGBT people and for the eventual reversal of state-sponsored homophobia in Kenya and beyond.