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Obama nudges Africa toward LGBT rights; too gently?

Barack Obama of the United States (left) and Macky Sall of Senegal. (Photo courtesy of Yahoo.com)
Barack Obama of the United States (left) and Macky Sall of Senegal. (Photo courtesy of Yahoo.com)

President Obama raised the issue of LGBT rights on the first stop of his current trip to Africa, where 38 countries have laws against homosexual activity. But he did not press the issue hard, nor did he raise it in his private conversation with Senegal President Macky Sall.

During a press conference, Sall was allowed to claim that Senegal is a tolerant country, without mentioning that Senegalese law provides for up to five years in prison for gay sex or that people are currently serving prison terms in Senegal for violating that law.

This was Obama’s appeal for tolerance yesterday in Senegal:

Presidents Barack Obama (left) and Macky Sall (right). (Photo courtesy of Afrik.com)
Presidents Barack Obama (left) and Macky Sall (right). (Photo courtesy of Afrik.com)

The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa.  So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions.  And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.  I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort.  That’s my personal view.  And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.

So 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, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally.  And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.

Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated.  And I think that applies here as well.

Senegal President Sall replied to Obama:

Macky Sall (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Macky Sall (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

You said something very important — general principles which all nations could share, and that is the respect for the human being and non-discrimination. But these issues are all societal issues basically, and we cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries — you said it, we all have different cultures. We have different religions. We have different traditions. And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don’t share the same views.

Senegal, as far as it is concerned, is a very tolerant country which does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being. We don’t tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different. But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality. I’ve already said it in the past, in our Cabinet meeting it is Senegal’s option, at least for the time being, while we have respect for the rights of homosexuals — but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law.

But of course this does not mean that we are all homophobic.

Sall reminded Obama that the United States still imposes capital punishment, while Senegal does not.  He also suggested that change on LGBT rights is slowly under way in Senegal:

Society has to [resolve] these issues. It has to take time to digest them, without pressure.*

It is just like the capital punishment. In our country, we have abolished it for many years. In other countries, it is still the order of the day, because the situation in the country requires it. And we do respect the choice of each country. But please be assured that Senegal is a country of freedom and homosexuals are not being prosecuted, persecuted. But we must also show respect for the values and choices of the other Senegalese people.

Senegalese prisoners serving time for homosexuality-related offenses include Tamsir Jupiter Ndiaye and Matar Diop Diagne. Ndiaye, a UNESCO employee and journalist, was sentenced to four years in prison last October for having gay sex and causing grievous bodily harm to Diagne, who was convicted of committing “acts against nature” and sentenced to three years in prison.

Human rights activist Ndeye Kebe, president of the group Women’s Smile, which works with homosexuals in Senegal, disputed Sall’s description of the country as tolerant. According to The Associated Press:

“I know of around a dozen people who are in prison for homosexuality as we speak,” [Kebe] said. “There wasn’t any real proof against them, but they were found guilty and they are in prison.”

And as recently as February of 2008, police rounded up men suspected of being homosexual after a Senegalese tabloid published photographs of a clandestine gay wedding in a suburb of Dakar. Gays went into hiding or fled to neighboring countries, but they were pushed out of Gambia by the president’s threat of decapitation.”

* This is a better translation of Sall’s remark [“La société doit prendre le temps de traiter ces questions sans pression.”] than what the White House distributed.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at info@76crimes.com. Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.

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