Despite Warnings President Obama Talks Gay Rights In Kenya
President Obama arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi July 24, 2015. He is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Kenya, and is considered something of a “favorite son”, as his father was Kenyan. But not all Kenyans see him as the prodigal son. President Obama has been an outspoken critic of Kenya’s persecution of gay people. In Kenya, homosexuality is illegal, carrying a punishment of a 14 year prison sentence.
During Obama’s presidency, the United States has become more accepting and supportive of gay rights, culminating with the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of legalizing same sex marriage nationwide. Unfortunately, Africa has moved in the opposite direction on the issue of discrimination against homosexuals.
President Kenyatta called gay rights in his country a “non-issue.”
“This issue is not really an issue that is on the foremost mind of Kenyans and that is a fact,” he said.
Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto has been outspoken on the issue, stating that Kenya was a God-fearing country and would not entertain growing calls for respect for gay rights.
Prior to President Obama’s trip, several Kenyan political and religious leaders had warned him not to discuss gay rights. He ignored those warnings. In fact, the first question posed in a July 25 joint press conference with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta was about the controversial issue.
“Similarly, with respect to the rights of gays and lesbians, I have been consistent all across Africa on this. I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law, and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, and I say that recognizing there may be people who have different religious or cultural beliefs.
But the issue is, how does the state operate relative to people. If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they are doing, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen. And when the government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. And as an African American in the United States, I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently. And there were all sorts of rationalizations by the power structure that were provided for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery, and they were wrong.
So, I’m not equivocal on this; if somebody is a law abiding citizen, is going about their business and working at a job, obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things good citizens are supposed to do and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love, is wrong. Full stop.
And, you know, the state does not need to weigh in on religious doctrine. The state just has to say, we’re going to treat everyone the same under the law. And then everyone else can have their own opinions. Alright?”
Kenyan President Kenyatta’s response regarding the issue:
“There are some things that we must admit we don’t share, our culture, our societies, don’t accept. It is very difficult for us to impose upon people what they themselves do not accept. This is why I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other issues that are day-to-day living for our people.”
Not all Kenyans hold the same ultra-conservative views. Eric Gitari, the executive director of Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told PRI in a recent interview that he has been denied entry to social premises, like restaurants and bars because people had seen him on television advocating for gay rights. The business owners were concerned about associating with a known homosexual.
Gitari had hoped that President Obama would speak publicly in support of gay rights during his visit Kenya.
“I look at him today, and a lot of Kenyans look at him today as a man who has journeyed through a lot of hardship to a point of great success.”
President Obama will be traveling to Ethiopia on July 26, where homosexuality is also illegal.
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