COMMENTARY: The United States has missed important opportunities to send a strong, clear, much-needed message about the nation’s commitment to global LGBT rights.
By Kikonyogo Kivumbi and Colin Stewart
Activist/journalist Kikonyogo Kivumbi is the executive director of the Uganda Health and Science Press Association. Colin Stewart is the co-founder of the African Human RIghts Media Network and editor/publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes, which covers LGBTQ rights news from Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: U.S. President Joe Biden is a good man. His administration is one of the most up-to-date and liberal U.S. administrations, staffed by numerous openly LGBTQ+ officials. This is wonderful.
The administration includes a global special envoy on LGBTQ+ rights and overseas foreign policy LGBT appointees within the State Department who focus on areas such as the United Nations and global health.
Yet, despite the comfort of having the most powerful man in the White House as our ally, a creeping worry is spreading in the global LGBTQ+ movement: Is Biden too nice to be an effective advocate for the human rights of LGBTQ+ people?
Anti-gay forces are organizing, covertly but aggressively, especially in Africa.
They believe that Biden is a good man who will let them get away with homophobic abuses without having to face any consequences. His detractors plan to exploit what they see as Biden’s civil servant mentality and his desire to lead with a clean record.
They also see Biden as wanting to keep overseas alliances working, even when some of those allies are habitual abusers of queer people in their country’s policies and laws.
The United States is reluctant to use its clout to protect human rights in nations that are strategically important to maintaining or restoring peace on the African continent. These nations include:
Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and other U.S. allies that have contributed resources to the fight for stability in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.
- Mali, Niger, Sudan and Libya, which are vulnerable to ongoing violence in the Sahel region.
- Mozambique, Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, combatting internal and cross-border wars and civil strife.
In each of these cases, homophobes can play their anti-gay cards, confident that the U.S. will not dare to make an effective response to defend LGBTQ+ rights.
The latest example of this reluctance to speak up for LGBTQ+ rights occurred when Biden met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the White House on Oct. 14. Biden made no public statement about the Kenyan law that calls for homosexuals to be jailed for up to 14 years or the plight of hundreds of LGBTQ+ refugees from Uganda who are exposed to violent attacks at Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.
It is important to note here that Kenya currently chairs the U.N. Security Council. Kenya’s voice on the security situation on the continent matters, especially for LGBT people who are being victimised under the guise of state-sanctioned anti-Covid-19 measures. The precarious situation of LGBT people in Africa and in developing countries worldwide, discriminated against in health care, courts and law enforcement, need to be highlighted as Western nations make decisions about Covid-19 vaccine donations and bilateral support overseas. When Biden met Kenyatta, it wasn’t.
Silence about the ‘worst anti-LGBTQ bill ever’
The newest challenge to Biden’s advocacy for global LGBT rights is in Ghana. When neither he nor his administration has spoken out forcefully against the anti-LGBTQ bill awaiting action by Ghana’s Parliament.
Judging by his public statements, he is not only failing to live up to last year’s campaign promise to combat anti-LGBTQ+ violence and discrimination worldwide, he is also ignoring the White House vow on National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) to “defend … the human rights of LGBTQ+ people around the world” and to “stand together against … acts of hate, and stand up to protect the rights, opportunities, physical safety, and mental health of LGBTQ+ people everywhere.”
In the recent past, a U.S. State Department official expressed concern about the arrest and detention of 21 LGBTQ persons who attended a human rights training session in southeastern Ghana, urging the Ghanaian officials to respect the nation’s international human rights obligations and commitments, including LGBTQ rights.
However, the Biden administration has remained mum about the new legislation, which has been described as “the worst anti-LGBTQ bill ever”.
The danger is that, if passed, that bill could fuel a wave of homophobic legislation elsewhere on the continent.
The bill’s proponents make extreme derogatory comments about LGBTQ people, which has led to a surge of homophobic attacks on LGBTQ Ghanaians, some of whom are already thinking of finding ways to leave the country to seek asylum. Is the Biden administration ready to provide for the many LGBTQ persons that want to leave as a result of the bill?
If passed, the anti-LGBTQ bill would ruin the lives of more than just LGBTQ Ghanaians. The bill also seeks to jail LGBTQ allies and donors who support sexual minorities in Ghana, including U.S. citizens who are human rights advocates, allies or donors. In addition, queer U.S. citizens visiting Ghana for work or vacation would risk arrest and prosecution.
The proponents of the bill have spread a false narrative that homosexuality is a Western culture that has been imported into Africa by Westerners. This lie not only ignores the many African traditions that accept sexual diversity but also embraces the homophobia introduced by Western colonial missionaries and boosted by modern American evangelicals.
It’s a lie that seeks to muzzle Western supporters of human rights for LGBTQ Africans. Western governments often shy away from making public statements about LGBTQ rights in Africa for fear of giving ammunition to people who deny that LGBTQ rights are human rights.
But the West doesn’t need to remain silent while anti-gay provocateurs spread their homophobic poison and shout their lies from the rooftops.
Western governments can make clear that they have no intention of meddling with other nations’ internal politics, while also emphasizing the importance of everyone respecting international human rights standards, including the full recognition of the human rights of LGBTQ people. While homophobic Ghana and Uganda are sovereign states, the United States is also a sovereign nation with a right to speak up against excesses, especially in developing countries that are plagued with corruption and weak institutions that allow meddling by homophobic leaders. Scott H. DeLisi, former U.S. ambassador to Uganda (2012–2015), went on record at the height of Uganda’s gay persecutions that “human rights, including for LGBT+, forms the DNA of Uganda-US relationship.” His outspokenness was effective.
Working behind the scenes: Self-sabotage?
The new wave of homophobic organising is being aided by public silence from the White House even while U.S. diplomats work behind the curtain in bilateral discussions with African countries.
This policy of discreet diplomatic discussions with African leaders has always almost always failed. It has cost lives while tolerating persistent violence and human rights abuses.
For example, the U.S. tried this policy from 2009 to 2014 in Uganda, when it was umasked as ineffective. During that time, the U.S. always gave the excuse of respecting the so-called social norms for the host country, even when it was clear that some of those norms were violations of human rights.
Eventually, Jerry P. Lanier, then U.S. ambassador to Uganda, initiated a change of strategic direction in bilateral engagements with the host country. The U.S. cut off funding for a homophobic religious organization that supported the bill. The reverberations of that action are still being felt in Uganda. This year Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has shied away from plans for a new anti-gay bill for fear of economic consequences.
In contrast, Biden’s silence sends a bad signal to the homophobes in Ghana and elsewhere.
In fact, anti-gay Ghanaian legislator Sam George has declared that Ghana would face no economic consequences if it enacts the anti-LGBTQ bill that he submitted.
He bases that claim on a biased account of past incidents when the United States did little or nothing in public about human rights abuses by African leaders.
In an interview on the program “Newsfile”, George stated, “Nigeria passed a stronger bill with more punitive measures for homosexuals in 2014 …. Nobody did anything to Nigeria. Nobody will do anything to Ghana.”
Less accurately, George cited the case of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law of 2014, which he incorrectly claimed was “more draconian” than his bill in Ghana. It’s true that the Uganda legislation was called the “Kill the Gays Bill”, but the death penalty was removed before it was passed. He also failed to mention the fact that the U.S. cut off funding for homophobic Ugandan clergy.
George’s posturing is strengthened by the fact that Biden has not yet made it clear whether the United States will remain an effective advocate for the human rights of LGBTQ Africans. As a result, from the perspective of a growing number of progressive Africans, Biden no longer looks as appealing as he once did. Sure, he’s better than his predecessor, but is he just a Delaware teddy bear?