Obama May Tread Carefully on Gay Rights in Africa

Advocates are hopeful the president will address rights for LGBT people when he visits three African nations later this week.

BY Jase Peeples

June 25 2013 7:40 PM ET

The Obama administration has made it a priority to promote gay rights overseas, but officials still carefully select the times and places they speak about global LGBT issues due to fear of igniting a backlash and compromising the safety of local activists, reports Kasa.com.

Nevertheless, the memorandum instructing federal agencies to promote the rights of LGBT people overseas that Obama signed in December 2011 could place the president at the center of Africa’s heated debate on the topic when he visits the nations of South Africa, Senegal, and Tanzania later this week.

"Given that African societies tend to be very conservative, it's a difficult issue," Carter, the U.S. ambassador to Ivory Coast, told the Associated Press. "The question for us is, how do we advocate effectively and advance the human rights agenda for the LGBT community, or any other community that is in a difficult position? And sometimes the headlong assault isn't the way to do it."

Currently, homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries, with Mauritania, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Southern Somalia punishing homosexual acts with death. Many supporters of antigay laws throughout Africa believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society according to a Pew Research Center Survey released June 4.

Still, Obama, who is greatly admired throughout Africa, is in a unique position to change minds on LGBT issues in the African nations and will need to tread carefully if he is be successful.

Chloe Schwenke, a former Obama appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development, believes any strong public statements regarding LGBT rights made by the president during his visit would only further inflame opponents, who believe the push for LGBT rights is merely another form of America imposing Western values on Africa."That would actually be playing into the hands of the opponents if he's seen as an advocate for something they want to believe is foreign, which of course it's not," Schwenke said.

While a full public endorsement of LGBT rights could incite a vicious backlash, several advocates are still hopeful Obama will address the issue. "It will be very important for him to talk about us with African leaders, and also in his speeches,” said Claver Toure, executive director of the gay and lesbian group Alternative Cote d'Ivoire. “It will give us strength to let us know that we are not alone." 

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