ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — A young man wearing rainbow suspenders entered the heavily-guarded residence of the United States ambassador to Ivory Coast. So did a transgender woman in a ruffled, purple gown, as well as seven men wearing matching baby blue pants and neckties.
The U.S. embassy here made history earlier this month by hosting a gay pride reception attended by about two dozen openly gay Ivorians. Despite the groundbreaking nature of the event, reporters were barred from attending, and the only mention of it was a short blurb on the embassy website posted the following week.
The handling of the event encapsulates the U.S. administration’s cautious promotion of gay rights in Africa, an issue that is likely to come up during President Barack Obama’s visit this week to three African nations – South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania – the last two of which punish homosexuality with jail time.
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The U.S. has made it a priority to promote gay rights overseas, but officials pick and choose when they talk about it, often citing concerns about igniting a backlash that could endanger local activists.
At the reception, Ambassador Philip Carter thanked the guests for their courage in the face of persecution and vowed that the U.S. would continue to advocate on their behalf, according to three Ivorians invited to the event as well as two U.S. diplomats.
Africa’s anti-gay legislation
In December 2011, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum instructing federal agencies to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people overseas. The memorandum coincided with a speech by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Human Rights Council in Geneva declaring that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
Here are some developments concerning anti-gay legislation in Africa since the memorandum was issued:
UGANDA: A bill originally calling for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” was re-tabled in February 2012. “Aggravated homosexuality” includes engaging in gay sex three times or while HIV-positive. The bill would also punish Ugandans who fail to turn in homosexuals to the authorities. President Obama called the bill “odious” in 2010. Its author has since said the death penalty provision has been removed.
LIBERIA: Lawmakers introduced two bills in 2012 that would strengthen existing anti-gay provisions in the criminal code. A bill banning same-sex marriage was unanimously passed in the Senate but has yet to be taken up by the House of Representatives. A bill in the House of Representatives is broader, and includes a provision banning the “promotion” of gay sex. The bill has yet to be voted on.
MALAWI: Just days after Clinton’s December 2011 speech, Malawi’s justice minister said the government would review anti-gay legislation “in view of the sentiments from the general public and in response to public opinion regarding certain laws.” Last November, the government said it would suspend implementation of the current law imposing maximum prison terms of 14 years against men engaged in same-sex sexual conduct. Women charged under the law face prison terms of up to five years. However, the government later denied issuing the statement.
NIGERIA: The House of Representatives last month passed a bill imposing 14-year prison terms for gay marriage. Witnesses or anyone who helps couples marry could be sentenced to 10 years in prison. Anyone taking part in a group advocating for gay rights or anyone caught in a “public show” of affection also would face 10 years in prison if convicted by a criminal court. The Senate passed the same bill in November 2011, one week before Obama’s memorandum was signed.
CAMEROON: Officials in Cameroon have continued to pursue prosecutions under a penal code provision that carries prison terms of up to five years for gay sex. Rights groups say Cameroon arrests, prosecutes and convicts more people for homosexuality than any other country in Africa, although they say the evidence in such cases is often weak. Evidence cited in recent cases has included effeminate clothing and text messages.
During the event, the talk turned to how Obama – a widely admired figure across Africa – would promote gay rights on his second visit to the continent since taking office.
“I asked the ambassador whether Obama would discuss the issue when he goes to Senegal,” said Claver Toure, who attended the private reception and is executive director of the gay and lesbian group, Alternative Cote d’Ivoire. “It will be very important for him to talk about us with African leaders, and also in his speeches. It will give us strength to let us know that we are not alone.”
By signing a December 2011 memorandum instructing federal agencies to promote the human rights of gay people overseas, Obama publicly inserted himself into Africa’s bitter debate about whether homosexuals have legitimate rights.
Since then American diplomats have forcefully pressed for gay rights behind closed doors, especially in countries that criminalize homosexuality, say experts and advocates.
Officials have also expanded outreach to local organizations promoting gay and lesbian rights, improved monitoring of anti-gay abuses and established an emergency fund for activists facing violence or harassment.
But the public positioning has been discreet, with the U.S. government clearly wary of any backlash that could put local activists at risk.
“Given that African societies tend to be very conservative, it’s a difficult issue,” Carter, the U.S. ambassador in Ivory Coast, told The Associated Press. “The question for us is, how do we advocate effectively and advance the human rights agenda for the LGBT community, or any other community that is in a difficult position? And sometimes the headlong assault isn’t the way to do it.”
A total of 38 African countries criminalize homosexuality, according to Amnesty International. In four of those – Mauritania, northern Nigeria, southern Somalia and Sudan – the punishment is death. These laws appear to have broad support. A June 4 Pew Research Center survey found at least nine of 10 respondents in Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
Obama’s decision to champion a hugely unpopular cause – both with the December 2011 memorandum and his public endorsement of gay marriage last year – has prompted soul-searching among some of his African fans.
“When Obama is talking about democracy, it means that we all have the same right -the right to do what we want,” Naty Noel, a communications consultant in Abidjan. “So maybe we can acc ept them.”
But while some campaigners say Obama is uniquely positioned to change minds on gay rights in Africa, there is concern that strong public statements from the president would merely be giving ammunition to a hostile opposition that has long dismissed the push for gay rights as an example of Western powers imposing their values on Africa.
“That would actually be playing into the hands of the opponents if he’s seen as an advocate for something they want to believe is foreign, which of course it’s not,” said Chloe Schwenke, a former Obama appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Diadji Diouf is all too familiar with arguments that homosexuality has no place in Africa.
The 32-year-old was rounded up during a meeting of HIV activists in 2008 and charged with violating a law prohibiting any “improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex.” He received an eight-year sentence but was released after four months following an international outcry.
Despite the risk that a full-throated endorsement of gay rights by Obama during his visit could trigger a strong negative reaction, Diouf said he still wants the president to take up the controversial issue.
“We already have arrests. We already have attacks,” he said. “If he doesn’t talk about it, we’ll be disappointed.”
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