WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama voiced strong support for gay rights in Africa on Thursday as he began a trip to the continent, bucking calls from some African leaders to keep his views on such controversial issues to himself.
Obama, who departed Washington late Thursday for a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, had faced criticism from rights groups and growing calls to press the issue aggressively while in a region known for a bleak record on human rights. In an interview with the BBC, Obama said he had been “blunt” with African leaders about gay rights in the past and planned to make it part of his agenda for this trip, too.
Asked about Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, a critic of gay rights in the U.S., Obama said: “Yeah, well, I disagree with him on that, don’t I?”
“Everybody deserves fair treatment — equal treatment — in the eyes of the law and the state,” Obama said. “And that includes gays, lesbians, transgender persons.”
The first sitting U.S. president to visit Kenya, Obama will also be visiting his ancestral homeland when he arrives Friday to attend a business summit and meetings with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Obama’s late father was from Kenya, and in the interview, Obama cited his relatives still in Kenya to argue he knows how the country’s history of mistreating women and girls has held Kenya back.
“I think those same values apply when it comes to different sexual orientations,” Obama said.
A number of Kenyan politicians and religious leaders have warned Obama in outspoken terms that any overtures on gay rights would not be welcomed in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.