TIME Kenya

Obama Defends Gay Rights on Kenya Trip

The African country sentences homosexuals to prison time

There is perhaps no wider chasm between the United States and Africa than over the issue of gay rights. The tension was thrown into sharp relief during U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya, the first visit of a serving U.S. President to this East African Nation. In a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday, following what appeared to have been a warm and productive meeting behind closed doors, Obama made it clear that the issue of gay rights in Kenya remained unresolved.

“I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” Obama said. “I’m unequivocal on this.”

Kenyatta’s government has staunchly defended laws imposing up to 14 years in prison for homosexuality. Kenya and the United States, he said, shared many values, from a love for democracy, entrepreneurship and families.

Gay rights were not one of those values.

“There are some things that we must admit we don’t share—our culture, our societies don’t accept. It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.”

As I wrote in a recent cover story on gay rights in Uganda, this issue has resonance across the continent.

By and large, Africa as a whole is far behind the United States and Europe in regards to acceptance of homosexuality. Legislated homophobia is on the rise across the continent, even as LGBT people have made historic gains elsewhere in the world. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, a large majority of North Americans, Latin Americans and residents of the European Union now accept homosexuality. Same-sex marriages are legal in 20 countries, including the United States. But in Africa, where the vast majority of people—98% in Nigeria, 90% in Kenya and 96% in Uganda, Senegal and Ghana, according to the Pew poll—say homosexuality is unacceptable, many religious leaders have watched that progress with alarm. Conservative politicians have also sought to protect their nations from what they see as a Western import by drafting anti-gay legislation even more draconian than the colonial-era sodomy laws that remain on the books in many African countries.

“Over the last five years, we have seen more laws being proposed and being passed into law in Africa,” says Laura Carter, Amnesty International’s adviser on sexual orientation and gender identity. “Even in places where the laws have not changed, enforcement has increased.” Thirty-four of 54 African nations currently criminalize homosexuality. According to Amnesty, South Sudan, Burundi, Liberia and Nigeria have implemented increasingly punitive penalties for people who engage in homosexual acts. Gambia now calls for life in prison. Mauritania, Sudan and parts of both Somalia and Nigeria permit courts to impose the death penalty in certain cases for individuals found guilty of same-sex activity.

The Pew survey also describes how intolerance for homosexuality tends to be more intense in communities where there are high levels of religious observance, and African nations stand out as some of the most observant in the world. Religious conservatives, Christian and Muslim alike, may be losing ground with the public on LGBT rights in the West, but in Africa, where church and mosque remain the cornerstones of society and politics, anti-­homosexual campaigners are determined to hold ground. Ty Cobb, global director for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT-rights advocacy group, says the growing backlash against homosexuality in Africa over the past several years is a proxy war in the cultural conflict that is being lost by the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S. and beyond.

Kenyatta argued that Kenya had other priorities, listing heath, education and road development, along with greater representation of women in society. “This is why I repeatedly say that, for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue,” he said. “Maybe once, like you have overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones.”

But when it comes to human rights, Obama made clear, it’s not so much a matter of priorities, but a matter of what is right. Drawing a comparison between anti-gay discrimination and the U.S. laws that once justified slavery and segregation, he brought in an unexpectedly personal angle. “As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law, and there were all sorts of rationalizations that were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery, and they were wrong.”

He was not calling for a change in religious doctrine in Kenya, he said. “The state just has to say we’re going to treat everybody equally under the law.”

As Kenyatta made clear, little is likely to change in terms of Kenyan laws regarding gay rights. That was not the expectation, says U.S. presidential spokesman Ben Rhodes, who was accompanying Obama on the trip. Obama, he said, has been raising the issue during all his Africa travels. “Frankly, what we can do is keep a spotlight on [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] rights and raise this issue and make sure that governments know that they are going to be hearing about this from us and hopefully from our partners in the international community.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s passionate defense of equality in a country that has long claimed him, a grandson of Kenya, for their own, may yet plant a seed that leads to greater acceptance down the line.

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