Jennifer Cooke, director at the Africa program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said Africa’s “deep conservative strand” puts Obama in a precarious position. “It would be a tricky strategy to push,” she said. “I don’t think he wants to back away and I don’t think he wants to lecture or create a backlash.”
In many countries, Africa experts say, opposition to homosexuality stemmed from colonialism. But religion, culture and a push by American-based evangelicals have continued to fuel the sentiment.
Homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries. In Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia, those found guilty face the death penalty.
In the last five years, Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi and Liberia have attempted to further criminalize homosexuality, while Nigeria’s president is considering signing a bill that would ban same-sex marriage and impose prison sentences for gays who show affection in public or advocate gay rights.
Africans are being harassed, discriminated against in health care, housing and employment and attacked because of real or perceived sexual orientation, according to a report released this week by Amnesty International. In some countries, people are arrested after being reported to police as being gay, sometimes leading to invasive medical exams as police search for evidence of same-sex conduct.
South Africa has broad protections for homosexuals, allowing marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. But it has also seen at least seven people murdered in the last year because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Amnesty report.
“President Obama should use his visit to South Africa as an opportunity to recognize the steps leaders have taken to begin to address hate crime and to offer U.S. assistance in strengthen South Africa’s response to these serious crimes,” according to a statement from Human Rights First. For example, the group says, he should offer resources to train police and equip prosecutors and work with the government to develop a system to treat victims and document hate crimes.
In the United States, support for gay rights has reached an all-time high.
Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to endorse same-sex marriage. Four states passed ballot measures last year legalizing same-sex marriage. All but a handful of Democratic senators now support gay marriage. The Boy Scouts of America dropped its longstanding ban on gay members (although its ban on openly gay adult scout leaders remains in effect). The first active player in a major American male team sport came out as gay.
Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, national field director for GetEQUAL, a gay rights group that recently worked to battle new laws in Uganda, said the group supported Obama’s trip so he could see the situation in Africa firsthand.
But, he said, Obama needs to remember that his work at home is not complete. He should sign an executive order to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation by companies that have federal contracts and to push for protections for same-sex couples in an immigration bill moving through Congress.
“There is still more he can do,” he said.