By signing a December 2011 memorandum instructing federal agencies to promote the human rights of gay people overseas, Obama publicly inserted himself into Africa’s bitter debate about whether homosexuals have legitimate rights. Since then American diplomats have forcefully pressed for gay rights behind closed doors, especially in countries that criminalize homosexuality, say experts and advocates. Officials have also expanded outreach to local organizations promoting gay and lesbian rights, improved monitoring of anti-gay abuses and established an emergency fund for activists facing violence or harassment.
But the public positioning has been discreet, with the U.S. government clearly wary of any backlash that could put local activists at risk.
“Given that African societies tend to be very conservative, it’s a difficult issue,” Carter, the U.S. ambassador in Ivory Coast, said. “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.”
Thirty-eight African countries criminalize homosexuality, according to Amnesty International. In four of those — Mauritania, northern Nigeria, southern Somalia and Sudan — the punishment is death. These laws appear to have broad support. A June 4 Pew Research Center survey found at least nine of 10 respondents in Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society.