Last week, about a hundred people gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, for the African Regional Conference of Families, a regional conference for the World Congress of Families (WCF). The WCF, a U.S.-based international coalition of Religious Right groups dedicated to a very limited notion of “the natural family,” uses its frequent international convenings to develop and disseminate right-wing strategy. WCF uses deceptive “pro-family” rhetoric to promote conservative ideologies, which are then codified into regressive laws and policies that criminalize LGBTQ people and abortion.
Anti-gay and anti-abortion activist Don Feder, WCF’s Coalitions Director and Coordinator of Regional Conferences, opened the gathering with a speech in which he acknowledged WCF as the official sponsor of the Nairobi conference. Aside from presenting the sexual rights movement as a new form of slavery, Feder called on participants to work together to defend the natural family, which he described as “the institution on which the fate of humanity hinges.” But he also denied climate change as a hoax of the sexual revolution—a claim Michael Hichborn of the U.S. anti-abortion Lepanto Institute made the center of his presentation. Sharon Slater of the U.S.-based Family Watch International called on participants to oppose Comprehensive Sexual Education, denouncing the use of condoms and calling for abstinence only sex ed instead.
Other speakers included Alfred Rotich, a Catholic bishop from the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops, who linked abortion to “accompanying vices such as necrophilia, bestiality, pedophilia, same-sex relationships as well as calls for free sex and reproductive health services for children!” Various speakers followed Rotich’s lead in linking LGBTQ issues and calls for greater reproductive rights in Africa with foreign interests and funders.
All of this was a familiar WCF script, but this time things didn’t go as planned. Just after WCF African representative Theresa Okafor repeated the Christian Right claim that trans people are mentally ill—and blamed their identity on contraceptives—Gathoni Muchomba, a renowned Kenyan radio host, took the stage. In addition to being a famous media personality, Muchomba is the director of Gamafrica, a Kenyan NGO that recently launched a new initiative dedicated to supporting children with intersex conditions and their families. Although she was not included on the original list of speakers announced a day before the conference, from the podium, Muchomba issued a surprising call for the inclusion of intersex people in the new National Family Promotion and Protection Policy that was recently proposed by Kenya’s Ministry of Labor, a co-sponsor of the WCF Nairobi meeting.
Muchomba is hardly a traditional LGBTQI ally: she conflates gender identity and sexual orientation; didn’t know the meaning of the LGBTQI acronym; and warned that if Kenya doesn’t address intersex and trans issues, it won’t be able to fight “lesbianism.” And yet she nonetheless used her platform at WCF to bring attention to the suffering of intersex children, and unwittingly advanced the cause of sexual minorities.
Among the people who have motivated Muchomba’s advocacy is James Karanja, an intersex man who was raised as a girl. After declaring his gender identity as an adult, Karanja was treated as an outcast, but he has persisted in fighting for legal recognition as a man so that he can pursue a college education.
During her speech, Muchomba invited Karanja to address the WCF audience directly. Karanja (who does not identify as gay or transgender), told the right-wing gathering about the shame he experienced at his all-girls school, where he woke up at 3am to shower before his classmates arose; how he was later suspended because he was attracted to other girls; and how his mother suffered a mental breakdown after he came out as a man and said he was changing his name.
“I don’t want to see another child go through what I went through,” Karanja told the crowd.
WCF delegates heard a number of alarming stories about sexual minorities who are forced to live as outcasts, including a child who was raised as a boy but later came out as a girl, and who, like James, was subsequently forced to leave school. The public sharing of these stories comes just weeks after Kenyan parliamentarian Isaac Mwaura asked lawmakers to consider a bill recognizing and accepting intersex people—a proposal that resulted from Muchomba and Karanja’s activism.
Although Mwaura’s proposed bill and Muchomba’s advocacy suggest advances in intersex and gender rights activism, the WCF poses a dangerous threat to this fragile progress, casting gender and sexual minorities as mentally ill. But amid their forum, Karanja delivered a message they won’t soon forget: that Africa has sexual minorities, and they are not a curse.
Karanja’s speech shocked the audience and was the talk of the conference during lunch and tea breaks. In response to Muchomba’s and Karanja’s unexpected departure from WCF positions, the conference speakers who followed them worked hard to dismiss Karanja’s story. Some blamed his experiences on his failure to obtain hormonal therapy as a child. (Many United Nations human rights bodies have recognized that medically unnecessary, non-consensual surgeries and other interventions on intersex children amount to human rights violations.) In an interview with me, Joshua Nwachukwu, the Nigerian co-founder of the African Organization for Families, a WCF affiliate and co-host of the conference, indicated that Karanja chose to be male. Had he sought medical care, Nwachukwu argued, Karanja “would have remained a girl.”
But some attendees seemed moved to at least reconsider their previous positions. Bishop Rotich told me that Karanja’s story illustrated the need for pastoral resources for caring for intersex people. That suggests the possibility that while African conference-goers may forget the abstract speeches of U.S. culture warriors like Sharon Slater, Don Feder, and Michael Hichborn, Karanja’s strong testimony on the need for dignity, respect, and rights may have a more lasting impact.