(CNN) – Kenya’s High Court began hearing a case that may decriminalize homosexuality.
It’s a significant step in East Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in almost every country in the region and in 38 countries in total across the continent, according to Amnesty International.
“The fact that we are being heard is an indicator that our democracy has come of age,” said Eric Gitari, a Harvard-educated lawyer and founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, one of the organizations which brought forward the case in 2016.
The case opened Friday in a crowded Nairobi courtroom. The judges had to change to a different room to accommodate the large crowd.
“The judges know the entire world is watching,” Gitari said.
Kenyan law currently prohibits “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” labeling it a felony that is punishable with 14 years in prison.
The case argues that this law, which can be traced to British colonial law from the turn of the century, is unconstitutional.
“We are hopeful,” Gitari said. “The judgment is going to give guidance to countries across Africa. It’s going to encourage activists in so many African countries, it’s going create a ripple effect.”
Activists say that laws that prohibit homosexuality lead to the harassment, abuse and discrimination of the LGBT community.
“The case before Kenya’s High Court seeking to decriminalize consensual same sex conduct is of monumental significance for Kenya and beyond,” Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher in the LGBT Rights program at Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
“A positive ruling would affirm that same-gender loving Kenyans are just as deserving of equality, privacy and dignity as anyone else. ”
“The courageous Kenyan activists and ordinary people who brought this case are a model and an inspiration to LGBTQ people and their allies throughout Africa.”
In 2016, Kenyan courts ruled that forced anal testing of men was constitutional, and could be used as evidence in a trial of men accused of homosexuality.
A 2014 parliamentary report found that between 2010-2014, the Kenyan government prosecuted 595 cases of homosexuality.