Homosexuality is considered a criminal offense in many African nations, including Senegal and Tanzania, two of the countries Obama will visit. South Africa, the third country on the president’s itinerary, has broad protections for homosexuals and is the only African country to legalize gay marriage.
Gay rights activist Richard Socarides said Obama could use the rulings as a “teachable moment” if the justices move to expand rights for same-sex couples.
“If the timing works out so that he’s there, it may provide a perfect opportunity for him to speak out about the principles we value in our democracy and how we would hope that others follow it,” said Socarides, who worked in the White House during the Clinton administration.
The White House wouldn’t say what role gay rights would play in Obama’s trip but noted that the administration “unequivocally advocates against violence and discrimination” against gays and lesbians, both in Africa and elsewhere around the world.
One of the cases before the Supreme Court is a challenge to California’s voter-approved Proposition 8 that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The other seeks to strike down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denies to legally married same-sex couples a range of benefits that generally are available to married heterosexuals. Obama supports overturning both measures.
The president has frequently called on countries around the world to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. In 2011, he directed the State Department to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of” gays, lesbians and transgender people. That included having diplomats “combat the criminalization” of being gay by foreign governments.
According to the State Department’s 2012 human rights report on Tanzania, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal and carries a prison sentence of 30 years to life. The report also concluded that gays and lesbians face “societal discrimination that restricted their access to health care, housing and employment” and that there were no government efforts to combat such discrimination.
Conditions are similar in Senegal, according to the State Department. The agency’s 2012 human rights report on the West African nation says consensual same-sex activity, referred to in the law as an “act against nature,” is a criminal offense.
Underscoring the continent’s tough penalties for gays and lesbians, Nigeria’s House of Representatives voted Thursday to ban gay marriage and outlaw any groups actively supporting gay rights, endorsing a measure that also calls for 10-year prison sentences for any public show of affection by a same-sex couple. It’s unclear whether Nigeria’s president will sign the measure.