JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- As president, Barack Obama has endorsed same-sex marriage, repealed a military requirement that service members keep their sexual orientation secret and offered gay federal employees family leave.
But Obama’s trip to Africa this week challenges the depth of his support for gay rights by taking him to a part of the globe where homosexuality can – and does – lead to arrest, harassment, discrimination, even death.
Obama is spending a week in a trio of nations in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, where he arrived Friday night, violence against gays has escalated. In the other two on his itinerary, Senegal and Tanzania, homosexuality is a crime.
Human rights groups are urging Obama to speak publicly about the growing wave of homophobia in the continent, pressing nations to ensure the safety and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
“His silence would be seen as indifference to their suffering,” said Adotei Akwei, an Africa expert and Amnesty International USA’s managing director for government relations.
In Senegal, the first stop of his trip, Obama did not challenge President Macky Sall on the issue in their closed-door meeting, but he acknowledged it later when asked about it by a reporter. Obama said that he believes that each country’s customs must be respected but that everyone should be treated equally.
“When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally. I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort,” Obama said at a news conference with Sall. “And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.”
Responding to Obama, Sall described Senegal as a tolerant country that does not discriminate against gays but is not ready to decriminalize homosexuality, either.
“We are still not ready to change the law,” Sall said, speaking in his native French. “But of course this does not mean that we are all homophobic. But the society has to absolve these issues. It has to take time to digest them, bringing pressure to bear upon them, on such issues.”
The issue of homosexuality drew more attention this week after the U.S. Supreme Court made history with victories for marriage equality on a pair of highly anticipated cases – a challenge to California’s law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage even for couples married under state law.
Obama previously has called on nations to end discrimination against gays. In 2011, he directed the State Department to ensure that “U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights” of gays. Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, followed up in a speech marking international human rights day in Geneva, saying “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
But few expected Obama to push the issue on this trip – the first significant visit to sub-Saharan African since he was elected. Instead, he is focused on trade, energy and democracy building. Some suggested he could quietly challenge laws through administrative practices, such as denying aid to nations that do not ease restrictions.