President Barack Obama used United States’ past struggles during the civil rights era to make the case for Kenya to improve its record on the treatment of the local gay community.
By doing so he delivered on a promise to be blunt in his support for gay rights, despite the certainty of a chilly response from President Uhuru Kenyatta, who earlier in the week called it a “non-issue.”
Homosexual acts are criminalized in Kenya and anti-gay activists have been warning Obama for weeks against bringing up his “Western ideology” on the issue.
He clearly didn’t care and responded after a question from a member of the foreign press.
“I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this. I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law and they are deserving of equal protection under the law,” he began.
“When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they’re doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen. As an African-American in the U.S., I am painfully aware of the history when people are treated differently under the law.”
“They were wrong. So I’m unequivocal on this. If somebody is a law abiding citizen who is going about their business and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things that 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.”
Still a “non-issue”
When it was Kenyatta’s turn to reply, there was a pregnant pause before he began his answer, which first addressed counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S.
“Kenya and the U.S., we share so many values. Our common love for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families. These are things that we share, but there are some things we must admit we don’t share – that our culture, our societies don’t accept.
“It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept. That is why I repeatedly say for Kenyans today the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas that are day to day living for our people.”
For gay activists, the exchange was a mixed bag. While Obama’s blunt comments were uplifting, Kenyatta’s dismissal stung.
But it also, in a way, dovetailed with what many of them have been saying amid the media frenzy over the issue: that Kenya does have much bigger issues than the presence of LGBT citizens. Many criticized the furor over the issue in the last couple weeks as a distraction tactic by a struggling government.
“Kenyan does have issues that are greater priorities. We are facing insecurity, we are facing unemployment, and all those things that he talked about,” said Anthony Oluoch, executive director of the Gay Kenya Trust.
“But you know gay and lesbian people are also part of Kenyan society. There are people who are being evicted from their houses, facing violence for being gay, lesbians being correctively raped… It may not be an issue for a majority of Kenyans, but for the minority of Kenyans who are facing all this discrimination, it’s a huge issue.”