President Obama’s first visit to Kenya as U.S. president concluded on Sunday and, for all intents and purposes, the journey went well: Obama was greeted by adoring crowds throughout the country and was also able to meet with a number of his relatives.
But the trip did include one tense moment. Appearing at a press conference with his counterpart, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, on Saturday, Obama spoke out about the importance of gay rights in the country.
“As somebody who has family in Kenya and knows the history of how the country so often is held back because women and girls are not treated fairly, I think those same values apply when it comes to different sexual orientations,” he said. He then likened anti-gay discrimination as “the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.”
Kenyatta didn’t take the bait. “For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue,” he said. “We want to focus on other issues that really are day-to-day issues for our people.” Kenyans in attendance applauded his remarks.
Gay equality has a long way to go in Africa. Of the continent’s 54 countries, only one, South Africa, has legalized same-sex marriage. In many others, opposition to homosexuality is nearly universal. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 98 percent of the population of Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy, believe homosexuality should not be part of society. The percentages in Senegal and Ghana were scarcely lower. In Uganda, where public opposition reaches 96 percent, rights activists achieved a rare victory in 2014 with the overturning of a law mandating life in prison for many instances of gay sex. But months later, a similar piece of legislation was enacted in Gambia. Attitudes in the continent’s southern countries aren’t much more tolerant. When a Supreme Court decision legalized gay marriage in the United States last month, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe remarked that he would take the opportunity to propose marriage to Obama himself.