Obama was already aboard Air Force One, bound for Senegal, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions granting federal recognition to gay marriages in states that allow them and permitting marriage equality in California. Once he lands, it will be the beginning of a three-country swing across the continent, taking him from Senegal to South Africa to Tanzania. In each of these countries, the U.S. is seeking to improve ties through greater investment and promoting inclusion of women and youth in the countries’ national dialogue.
Advocate groups are hoping, however, that Obama takes the opportunity to engage with governments and civil society groups alike in promoting equal rights for gays and lesbians in each of the countries he visits and across the continent as a whole. Amnesty International this week issued a new report on not only the troubling lack of gay rights in Africa, but the efforts to criminalize homosexuality in several of these states. In fact, two of the countries that Obama is visiting — Senegal and Tanzania — have laws in place making any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex a crime. Even without evidence, a gay man in Senegal can be sentenced to as many as eight years in prison just for having sex.
In the case of one gay Senegalese immigrant to the United States who faces deportation, the situation of his return may be one of life or death. Should Michel Manley be returned to his country of origin, it’s likely that he will face imprisonment for the crime of being gay, or even death at the hands of his fellow countrymen. Likewise in Tanzania, gay citizens have been the target of frequent harassment and outright assault from the police with a blind eye turned by the government, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. In 2011, Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda pushed back on British warnings of foreign aid reductions to his country unless greater equality was granted to gay citizens by claiming that “not even animals” engage in homosexuality.
South Africa has a better stance on homosexuality than the vast majority of the other countries in the region, with laws on the books to protect against the discrimination of the LGBT community and full recognition of same-sex marriages. Transgendered individuals even have the right to petition the government to change their gender on all official documents. Unfortunately, South Africa is also the world capital of brutal “corrective rapes” against lesbians, where males seek to “cure them” of their sexual preference through forced intercourse.
Hoping to sway him towards actually addressing these injustices during his time overseas, Amnesty International’s Deputy Executive Director Frank Jannuzi sent an open letter to President Obama. “Mr. President, your visit to Africa may just last a few days,” he wrote, “But your words and deeds and the messages they convey will reverberate for far longer. We sincerely hope that you will use this visit to recommit the United States to being a force for human rights and human dignity in partnership with the governments of Africa and the African people.”
Gay rights did come up in a press conference following Obama’s meeting with Senegalese President Macky Sall, though not in a way advocates will find encouraging. “We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality,” Sall said, claiming that his country is “very tolerant” and shouldn’t be pressured over the matter. “This does not mean we are homophobic,” Sall added.