By Benedict Brook
US President Barack Obama’s recent push for greater rights for gays and lesbians in Africa may have started a conversation but it might not have an immediate effect, an American Studies academic has told the Star Observer.
Meanwhile, a human rights expert has cautioned that the fine words of western leaders need to be backed up with real support for grassroots groups.
On Tuesday, Obama concluded a five-day trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, two out of least 30 African countries where homosexuality is illegal.
At a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday, Obama encouraged more respect for LGBTI people.
“I believe in the principal of treating people equally under the law, and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” he said.
However, Kenyatta said the two leaders would have to disagree and that gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans”.
Dr David Smith, a lecturer in American foreign policy at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said that despite Obama’s initial reticence on the issue, his embrace of marriage equality — and its legalisation across the US — suggested he wanted LGBTI rights to be seen as one of the hallmarks of his time in office.
“Obama’s probably looking at the kind of rapid change that has happened in advanced industrial democracies and he and his advisers are thinking, well okay, now we can look at places like Africa and Asia,” Smith said.
“What Obama might be aiming to do is trigger the kind of cascade in Africa, or in other parts of the developed world, that has happened in the west.”
He said the framing of LGBTI rights as a similar struggle to woman’s rights and racism had been “remarkably effective,” in the US, where, people could be more open about their sexuality.
The same was not necessarily true in Kenya and many other parts of Africa.
“It is very ambitious because in Africa it’s currently the case that homosexuality is criminalised in about two thirds of countries,” Smith said.
“In a lot of African countries, where you have to be very brave to live openly, people just don’t see the analogy because… many people believe they don’t know anybody who is LGBTI.”
Smith was doubtful as to whether Obama’s gay rights message would be embraced: “We’ll see, I don’t think it’ll have an immediate effect and there were people in the United States who were warning this could just stir up resentment.”
However, he said it got the issue discussed which was a step in the right direction.
Amnesty International Australia spokesperson and social justice advocate, Senthorun Raj, said it was problematic to generalise LGBTI rights across the continent and even in South Africa — where marriage equality is legal — discrimination was still common.
“You can have an amazing constitution but the legislative reality doesn’t eliminate homophobia and transphobia,” he said.
Raj said that while western countries might be advocating for gay rights in the developing world it shouldn’t be forgotten that, in many cases, it was the colonial powers themselves who introduced homophobic legislation onto the statute books.
Meanwhile in countries like Uganda, US evangelists were spearheading anti-gay legislation and continue to do so.
Groups within the countries themselves, who understood the local landscape, were best placed to effect change for LGBTI people, according to Raj.
“We do need to have political leaders starting conservations around LGBTI rights but it’s about what comes from that dialogue,” he said.
“It’s one thing to lecture someone about LGBTI rights but it’s quite another to demonstrate how that can happen and provide resources — which often means ongoing support.”
This article was originally published in the Star Observer