Obama faces gay rights challenge in Kenya
Six and a half years after Kenyans started naming their children in honor of America’s first black president, Barack Obama’s name has also become synonymous, often derisively, with gay rights.
“Go wait for your Obama,” a landlord reportedly told a gay couple as he kicked them out of their Nairobi apartment, part of an apparent uptick in homophobic acts in the country ahead of the American president’s visit.
During Obama’s presidency, the United States has generally become more supportive of gay rights including same-sex marriage, while Africa has moved the other direction. In 2014 alone, Nigeria, Gambia and Uganda enacted new laws to impose long prison sentences for same-sex relationships. In most African countries — including Kenya, where Obama arrives for a visit on Friday — homosexuality remains illegal and gays and lesbians are ostracized or worse.
Some African leaders have warned Obama not to raise the issue of gay rights during his trip. That puts Obama in a tough spot: His administration has made promoting LGBT tolerance a key goal of his foreign policy, but pushing too hard could backfire in countries where anti-gay rhetoric is a surefire way for leaders to get attention and votes.
Briefing reporters ahead of the trip on Wednesday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice didn’t bring up gay rights until prompted. “I have no doubt that the president will feel perfectly free to raise his concerns,” she said. But she was careful to convey that Obama isn’t singling out any country or region. “This is not for us an issue of Africa, or any country in Africa,” she said.
A “nonissue” that’s not on the agenda is how Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta referred to LGBT rights ahead of Obama’s visit, but his No. 2, William Ruto, was among several politicians and clergymen who’ve railed against homosexuality at Sunday services in recent weeks. Another lawmaker said he would tell Obama to “shut up” if he brings it up.
Even first lady Michelle Obama (who isn’t making the trip) is being invoked by opponents of gay rights.
“We do not want Obama and Obama, we do not want Michelle and Michelle,” protesters chanted earlier this month at a march organized by a prominent evangelical pastor.
On the other hand, international LGBT activists say Obama may have more stature than other Western leaders to make the case for tolerance. Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, is possibly the only Western politician who can speak out against widespread, state-sanctioned discrimination on the African continent without being viewed as an imposing colonialist.
“He can’t be dismissed in the same way that others might be dismissed,” said Graeme Reid, a native of South Africa who directs the LGBT program at the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “He is highly regarded, he is venerated, and because of that, people are engaging more with this idea.”
Obama is the face of American LGBT acceptance in no small part because of his direct confrontations with African leaders.
In 2013, Obama tangled publicly with President Macky Sall of Senegal, which bans homosexual relationships, during a news conference the day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Hailing the ruling, Obama said it was important for Africans to hear his personal view that “when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.”
Sall replied that while Senegal is a “very tolerant” country, “we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.” Then he took a jab at U.S. credibility on human rights, noting that Senegal had abolished capital punishment — drawing cheers from the predominantly Muslim country’s media for standing up to the American president.
Obama also stuck his neck out last year — without much success — in an effort to prevent Uganda from enacting one of the continent’s harshest anti-gay laws, which imposes up to a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality.” The White House lobbied President Yoweri Museveni to veto the bill in February 2014, and Obama warned that he was “disappointed” with the country and that the bill’s adoption would “complicate our valued relationship with Uganda.”
Since then, the administration has reassigned some aid funding away from the Ugandan government. Last week, U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry traveled to Uganda, where he met with the prime minister and other lawmakers in meetings a State Department spokesman called “very constructive.” The openly gay diplomat is the first person to hold the position, created just months ago.
Most African countries ban gay sex and make it difficult for LGBT advocacy groups to register, and polls consistently show very deep-seated homophobia across the continent. The origin and severity of those rules and beliefs, however, vary by culture, colonial history and religion.
South Africa is a major exception, having legalized same-sex marriage in 2006. And last year, in an unprecedented move, an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights resolution condemned violence based on sexual and gender identity.
The U.S., LGBT advocates say, needs to ever-so-gently fan these positive flames without creating a backlash. It’s already proven difficult, as Monday’s White House visit by newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari showed.
The man Buhari defeated, Goodluck Jonathan, pushed through a gay marriage ban in Nigeria that also criminalized public displays of affection between people of the same gender. Buhari had been relatively quiet on these issues, and Jonathan’s campaign accused him of being an American-backed shill for gay rights.
So when the State Department’s Africa chief, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters ahead of Buhari’s visit that the administration will “continue to press the government of Nigeria, as well as other governments” on gay rights, it translated into headlines like “We’ll Compel Nigeria to Accept Same-Sex Marriage” in the Nigerian media. In the end, the White House made no mention of discussing human rights with Buhari, but some U.S. senators did in a subsequent meeting. A Buhari spokesman tweeted in response that the Nigerian president was “point blank. Sodomy is against the law in Nigeria, and abhorrent to our culture.”
Buhari’s adamant stance isn’t surprising in light of the polls: A Gallup-affiliated firm in June found that 87 percent of Nigerians supported the ban, and eight in 10 believe gay people should not have equal rights.
In the background of the administration’s emphasis on gay rights is the sense that American evangelical groups have been a driving force behind anti-gay laws in Africa. But the chief of one of those groups, Larry Jacobs of the World Congress of Families, points to the lopsided polls to make the case that it’s Obama who’s pushing foreign values on the continent.
“We know that strengthening families is important to solving poverty, so in my view he’s actually undermining what could help solve the problems that Africans face,” Jacobs said. He also noted that the administration has been less vocal about the issue with strategically important Middle Eastern countries that also threaten harsh punishments for homosexuality, including the death penalty.
“I’m not sure what gives us the right to impose it on poor African nations when we won’t talk about basic human rights with these other countries,” he said.
At this point, expectations for Obama to talk about gay rights in Kenya are so high that local activists will feel “betrayed” if he doesn’t, said Eric Gitari, executive director of Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
“We will be left with a blank look on our faces,” said Gitari, who sent the president a list of proposed talking points via the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. “Mr. Obama is not someone who shies up to a challenge.”
At least one expected challenger said he’s standing down: Vincent Kidala, leader of Kenya’s little-known Republican Liberty party, had planned a protest in Nairobi featuring 5,000 naked prostitutes — to show Obama the difference between men and women. But according to The Star newspaper, Kidala cancelled the event after he received a mysterious 2 a.m. phone call from someone promising that the two presidents would not discuss gay rights.
Kidala told the newspaper that the protesters will remain on standby just in case.