The Obama Administration's Bold but Risky Plan to Make Africa Gay-Friendly

A new U.S. initiative to improve the sub-Saharan's notoriously poor LGBT rights could already be inspiring a backlash.

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Ugandan activists hold placards and chant slogans during an anti-homosexuality protest / Reuters

MONROVIA, Liberia -- After their private ceremony in the Liberian capital, a newly married gay couple traveled with a small group of friends to a strip of shore known locally as Miami Beach. It was a Sunday in late January, a time of year when the sky is often thick with haze, but the private beach was crowded anyway. The group, mostly young gay men, had just started in on their Club Beer, chicken, and Pringles when another beachgoer walked directly into one of the newlyweds. He refused to apologize to "a bunch of fags" and an argument broke out, but it was defused when the beach's owner threatened to kick them all out if the commotion continued. The man walked off and no one in the wedding party thought much of it.

When they left around 6 pm, the group found a mob of some 20 people waiting for them. The mob threw stones and empty bottles, and the besieged wedding party threw them back. When it was over, only one of them had more than minor injuries: a member of the group had passed out after an asthma attack and had to be carried away. But the altercation, and the violent homophobia that sparked it, highlight the rising tensions surrounding gay rights in Liberia -- tensions that have only become more visible since the announcement of a new U.S. policy intended to counter them.

Last December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, proclaiming that "gay rights are human rights" and announcing the U.S.'s first government-wide policy to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas (the speech coincided with a memorandum issued by President Obama). She vowed "to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights" but was light on specifics. Within days, newspapers in Liberia -- one of America's closest allies in the region -- were condemning the policy in particular and homosexuality in general. Sub-Saharan Africa is marked by widespread homophobia as well as chronic dependence on foreign aid, in particular from the U.S., and the idea that those two issues might now be linked seemed to upset a lot of people here.

On January 19, three days after Clinton attended the second-term inauguration ceremony of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Sirleaf's press secretary announced that she would veto any legislation allowing gays to wed or legalizing homosexuality. In February, a Liberian lawmaker introduced legislation that would ban gay marriage. The bill, an amendment to existing legislation banning incestuous marriages and polygamy, would make gay marriage a first-degree felony, with prison sentences of up to ten years. Later in the month, another legislator introduced a bill that would make "same-sex sexual practices" a second-degree felony, carrying up to five years in prison. The bill would also make it a crime to "purposefully engage in acts that arouses or tend to arouse another person of the same gender (male/female) to have sexual intercourse." Both pieces of legislation are currently being reviewed in committee.

Liberia's backlash was remarkable not just because the country's government makes it a point to disagree with the U.S. as rarely as possible, but because it brought unprecedented local attention to the issue of gay rights. Like most sub-Saharan African countries, Liberia has a law restricting homosexual activity: voluntary sodomy is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. However, the most recent State Department Human Rights Report notes that "no convictions under the law occurred in recent years," and that, in 2010, there were "no reported instances of violence based on sexual orientation." Members of Liberia's LGBT community say that, for the most part, they had previously been able to live in peace --- unaccepted, sure, but underground and unmolested. The recent backlash against this new U.S. initiative, however, has manifested as a backlash against Liberian gays, leading some in the community to wonder if the American plan to help them could actually leave them worse off.

"At first, people were so free with everything, but now people are holding back on their dress code," a 26-year-old Liberian gay man explains. "Say there's five people, and everybody wants to go out. Someone will decide that we can't go together, because there's a huge possibility that one of us among the group is well known to be a gay. Everybody will carry their own burden. Because some people walk in a feminine way, some people dress in a feminine way. So we say, 'Oh, we can't go together, we'll spread out.'"

These fears are not unique to Liberia. In Uganda, the home of a widely condemned 2009 bill calling for the execution of some homosexuals, an adviser to President Yoweri Museveni responded to Clinton's remarks, "I don't like her tone, at all. ... Homosexuality here is taboo, it's something anathema to Africans, and I can say that this idea of Clinton's, of Obama's, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of." In early February, the author of the 2009 anti-gay bill reintroduced it (though he said provisions for the death penalty would be dropped).

Some countries, though, seem more receptive to revisiting their gay rights policies. Malawi, which Obama had earlier criticized for jailing two men who married in 2010, announced two days after Clinton's speech that it would review a ban on homosexuality "in view of the sentiments from the general public." A few months before Clinton's speech, Kenya's chief justice had declared, "gay rights are human rights."

Part of the backlash in some countries has to do with misinterpretation: a number of African media outlets have consistently reported that the policy makes U.S. foreign aid conditional on gay rights. Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, noted that Western powers had threatened to cut aid in the past, and that this may help explain today's misperception. In October, for example, UK Prime Minister David Cameron had threatened to withhold some aid from countries that outlaw homosexuality, though the money would only be redirected from a program called "budget support," which recipient governments prefer, to other programs such as humanitarian aid.

Reid suggested that misplaced fears about aid cuts could harm the effort to promote gay rights. "It's a very fraught issue, because of course cutting general development aid on the basis of a vulnerable and unpopular minority can have consequences for that minority," he said, even if the fears about losing foreign aid are actually unfounded, as with U.S. gay rights promotion. "They can be made more stigmatized and more vulnerable because suddenly it seems like they're bringing even more difficulty to the lives of the citizens of their country by being the cause of a cut in aid."

Nevertheless, U.S. officials have either failed to correct the record or haven't really tried. Clinton did not address the issue, though it is a big topic here, during her January visit. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Liberia, said in an interview with a fellow journalist who asked about the policy on my behalf that this approach partly reflected concerns that further statements would aggravate the situation rather than calm it. "I think our policy has been extremely clear from Washington that there is not a connection between our long-term aid and policies related to this issue. But knowing how occasionally irresponsible the press is here, my view was that we should not feed that frenzy," she said. "We have given them the information, the correct information. I can't be guaranteed that a public statement that we give will be put out in the way that we want the statement put out."

Thomas-Greenfield, who said she has discussed gay rights with Sirleaf, disputed that the new policy had triggered violence against gays. "I don't think [Clinton's and Obama's] statements were responsible for this behavior," she said. "I think this behavior is something that is criminal and it should be dealt with by the government here in Liberia. These views are not a result of policies from the U.S. government."

Some of Africa's biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid are also some of the sub-Saharan's worst on gay rights.

Nigeria, for which the State Department has requested $660 million in aid in the 2012 fiscal year, banned gay marriage in late November -- a somewhat unnecessary move given that homosexual activities are already punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment in the country's Christian-majority south and death by stoning in the Muslim north. Homosexuality is also illegal in Ethiopia ($608 million in U.S. aid in 2012), where homophobia is so entrenched that, according to the Human Rights Report, the majority of gays who called the AIDS Resource Center in Addis Ababa "requested assistance in changing their behavior to avoid discrimination." Uganda ($528 million in 2012) has practically become synonymous with intolerance in the wake of the "Kill the gays bill" and the 2011 slaying of gay rights activist David Kato.

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya (at $751 million, the sub-Saharan's top recipient of U.S. aid) and Tanzania ($572 million), although no one was reported punished for homosexuality in either country in 2010 (the Human Rights Report for 2011 has not yet been released). South Africa ($562 million) is the only African country that has legalized gay marriage. Last July, South Africa spearheaded the UN's first-ever resolution on gay rights, which passed despite strong criticism from other African countries.

Most African laws against homosexuality did not originate in Africa. Western colonial powers put them in place long ago, reproducing the laws they'd had at home but have since largely abandoned. Though many Africans believe homosexuality was an export from the West, in fact only codified homophobia was. Some evangelical Christians, many of whom are Western, are today continuing this tradition by supporting anti-gay movements in Uganda and elsewhere.

African leaders may also be attempting to turn gays into "an easy scapegoat" for their nations' problems, says Reid of Human Rights Watch, especially "economic difficulty and political instability."

The new gay rights initiative "gives more gravitas and more weight," he says, to U.S. efforts to promote gay rights, making it clear that "LGBT issues are part of the human rights agenda."

Although Clinton's speech may have helped fuel some recent backlashes against African gays, it didn't create the underlying homophobia, says Korto Williams, country representative for ActionAid International in Liberia. "People have children who are gay or lesbian and they just say, 'Don't talk about it, hide it,' or maybe the family does not talk to you. They ostracize you. That has been a common practice."

Even members of the Liberian LGBT community worried about the short-term effects of the U.S. policy acknowledge that, while the rhetoric and violence has escalated since early December, it's not a new problem. A man who was with the wedding party when it was attacked by the mob at Miami Beach in late January says that nearly every member of that group had earlier experienced more frightening incidents. "Everybody's got their own story."

He says he hopes that, in the long term, the U.S. policy will help improve conditions for gay Liberians, but he dreads more trouble ahead on the road to equality. "It's a good thing for the issue to be in the air, for people to hear about it and get used to hearing about it," he says. "But I feel like for us actually to face it, I don't want to be a part of it. You never know to what extent the people will go."