Obama comes out for gays in Africa

On the eve Supreme Court’s historic decisions concerning marriage equality, a friend wondered how forceful President Obama would be on the issue if asked about it during his trip while on African soil. After all, countries throughout the continent criminalize homosexuality. Uganda is perhaps the best known among them. Today, in Senegal, we got our answer.

Asked for his reaction to the historic nature of yesterday’s court rulings, Obama was direct and clear in espousing American values to the people of Africa. That he is African American only adds to their weight and power.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, first of all, I think the Supreme Court ruling yesterday was not simply a victory for the LGBT community, it’s a victory for American democracy. I believe at the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law. We believe in basic fairness. And what I think yesterday’s ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody….

Now, this topic did not come up in the conversation that I had with President Sall in a bilateral meeting. But let me just make a general statement. The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa. So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions. And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.

But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.  I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view. And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.

So my basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally. And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.

Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated. And I think that applies here as well.

Senegal President Macky Sall had a decidedly different view. He said his country is “very tolerant” and “does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being.” He said specifically that homosexuality is not hindrance to employment or recruitment in the armed forces. And yet, Sall said, “[W]e are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.”

The first step to being “very tolerant” and “not discriminate” is to stop making criminals out of citizens just trying to live their lives as normally and boringly as everyone else. On June 26, 2003, the last sodomy laws were wiped from the books in the United States by the Supreme Court. Exactly 10 years later, the court made same-sex marriage possible in California and allowed the federal government to recognize legally married same-sex married. The journey was long, and it’s not over. But it is a journey that Senegal has yet to start.

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