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In Africa, Obama gets jarring reminder of global homophobia

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with African drummers on Goree Island near Dakar, Senegal, June 27, 2013. Obama visited the island on Thursday where African slaves in past centuries were shipped west.

JASON REED/Reuters

A day after welcoming a historic U.S. court ruling on gay rights, President Barack Obama collided with the realities of global homophobia and a less deferential Africa as he began his long-awaited tour of the continent.

Mr. Obama, who made only a single brief visit to sub-Saharan Africa in his first term, is beginning an eight-day Africa tour in an attempt to reverse the neglect and keep pace with aggressive competitors such as China.

But his clash with Senegalese President Macky Sall on the gay-rights issue Thursday was a reminder that African leaders are less inclined to be pressured by the United States in a world where other superpowers are courting them.

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Mr. Obama said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extended federal benefits to same-sex married couples was "a victory for American democracy." But when he tried to argue for similar rights in Africa, he was swiftly rebuffed by his Senegalese host – leader of one of 76 countries worldwide where homosexuality remains criminalized.

"I want the African people just to hear what I believe," Mr. Obama said at a news conference with Mr. Sall. "People should be treated equally. That's a principle that I think applies universally."

Mr. Sall immediately rejected the call, making it clear that Senegal will continue to make homosexuality illegal and punishable by five years in prison. "We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality," he said. "We are still not ready to change the law."

African politicians have been resentful of efforts by Western governments to pressure them on gay rights. Britain was subjected to harsh verbal attacks from many Africans when it threatened to cut off foreign aid to countries that discriminated against gays.

Mr. Sall denied that gays are suffering any discrimination or prosecution in Senegal. Yet just four years ago, nine men in Senegal were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for "homosexual acts."

About a dozen gays remain in jail in Senegal today on similar charges, activists say. Anti-gay violence is common in the country – even after death. At least four men suspected of being gay have had their remains exhumed, desecrated and dragged through the streets, media reports say.

A recent survey found that 96 per cent of Senegalese are opposed to the acceptance of homosexuality. At the United Nations Human Rights Council last year, Senegal argued that a ban on anti-gay discrimination would pose a threat to African culture and religion.

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Across Africa, 38 countries have criminalized homosexuality – often defining it in their laws as "unnatural acts" – and four countries have authorized the death penalty against those who violate these laws, according to a report this week by Amnesty International. And it could get worse: politicians in five African countries are trying to increase the criminal penalties for homosexuality.

"Homophobic attacks and harassment across sub-Saharan Africa are becoming more visible, indicating the homophobia is reaching dangerous levels," Amnesty said. "In too many cases, these attacks on individuals and groups are being fuelled by key politicians and religious leaders."

African politicians often portray homosexuality as an alien Western import violating African culture. Yet the Amnesty report gave evidence that same-sex sexuality has always existed in Africa, and was tolerated before colonialism. Marriages between women have been documented in more than 40 ethnic groups in Africa, and some African languages have respectful words for gay relationships, the report said.

In most African countries, the criminalization of same-sex activity is a direct legacy of colonial-era laws, and African homophobia is financed and promoted by right-wing Christian groups in the United States and other Western countries, Amnesty said.

South Africa is the only African country where sexual orientation is specifically protected from discrimination under the constitution. But even in South Africa, there have been a "persistently high" number of rapes and murders of gays, the Amnesty report said.

Between June and November 2012, at least five lesbians and two other people were murdered in South Africa in what appeared to be "targeted violence related to their sexual orientation or gender identity," it said.

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Homophobia is rampant in other parts of the world too. Earlier this month, Russia's parliament passed a law banning "gay propaganda" – effectively prohibiting gay-rights rallies. Homosexual acts are criminalized in many countries in the Middle East, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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