, JOHANNESBURG, Jun 28 – Hours after arriving on African soil, US President Barack Obama’s backing of equal gay rights came face to face with the reality of a continent that largely criminalises same-sex relationships.
The delicate subject cropped up on Thursday in Senegal on Obama’s first stop of a three-country tour where he told Africans that gays deserve equality under the law.
“I want the African people to just hear what I believe,” said Obama, speaking in one of Africa’s 38 states that outlaw homosexuality.
“My basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you… people should be treated equally.”
His Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall responded that though Senegal was “very tolerant”, it was “not ready yet to decriminalise homosexuality”.
Obama’s visit comes amid fresh warnings on discrimination faced by gays in Africa.
Amnesty International warned this week that homophobia in sub-Saharan Africa had reached “dangerous levels” with more countries passing laws criminalising same-sex relations.
It said that in the last five years, South Sudan and Burundi have introduced new laws criminalising same-sex relations, while Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria are pushing bills that would toughen existing penalties.
Even in South Africa, the only country that allows same-sex marriage, black lesbians are targeted for “corrective rape” by men trying to “cure” their homosexuality.
Other cases include two men in Zambia on trial for sodomy which carries a potential 14-year sentence, and the arrest of an activist for lobbying for gay rights on live television.
“In some African countries political leaders target sexual orientation issues to distract attention from their overall human rights record,” Amnesty said.
“Religious leaders too, sometimes influenced by US-based churches, have contributed to the climate of fear and loathing,” it added.
Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington said America’s right wing churches were part of the problem in the targeting of sexual minorities in Africa.
These had “financed and really sustained the voices of a very draconian view of the world and harsh and harmful discrimination of sexual minorities,” she said.