Obama Walks Fine Line in Kenya on LGBTQ Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in Nairobi at the end of a two-day visit Saturday, focusing on Kenya’s economy and the fight against terrorism, but also briefly touching on gay rights and discrimination.

“When you start treating people differently not because of any harm they are doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“You can’t encourage change by staying silent.” — Charles RadcliffeBut LGBTI Kenyans are not in agreement about whether Obama’s presence will help or hurt their struggle, according to the Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Jessica Stern.

“The difference of views is a sign of the strength and diversity of the Kenyan LGBTI movement, but there’s no question that this is a potential minefield, and ultimately, those who stand to get hurt most are regular Kenyans,” she told IPS.

Some have argued that the U.S. president speaking out on LGBTQ human rights in Kenya was counterproductive in the past, and has made the people of Kenya, where same-sex relations are punishable by up to 14 years in prison, more homophobic and unsupportive of the LGBTQ community.

Anti-gay organisations like the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum claim that they gained more support due to President Obama’s comments in 2013, along with some American policies, likely because the protection of LGBTQ communities is widely viewed as an American value being imposed on African society.

After Obama’s comments Saturday, President Kenyatta stated that in Kenya, it is “very difficult to impose” gay rights because the culture is different from the United States, and the societies do not accept it – which makes it a “non-issue” to the government of Kenya.

“There’s been a deliberate attempt to portray homosexuality as a Western import, which it isn’t,” the U.N. adviser on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, Charles Radcliffe, told IPS. “The only Western imports in this context are the homophobic laws used to punish and silence gay people,” these laws mostly originating from 19th century British colonialism.

By speaking on LGBTQ human rights abuses, Obama is “imposing human values, not Western ones,” says Radcliffe. “It’s possible to respect tradition, while at the same time insisting that everyone — gay people included — deserve to be protected from prejudice, violence, and unfair punishment and discrimination.”

Radcliffe said he believes Obama and other leaders should speak out, as it will “open people’s eyes to the existence of gay Kenyans and the legitimacy of their claim to respect and recognition.”

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