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Gay Africans react to Obama's UN comments in support of global LGBT rights

Gay African activists have reacted positively to President Obama's inclusion of LGBT human rights in his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly - a first for an American President.

Obama said:

"No country should deny people their rights, the freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but also no country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere."

According to Mark Bromley of The Council for Global Equality, a coalition of organisations working to promote human rights and LGBT equality in the United States and overseas, the inclusion of LGBT human rights is very significant as it reflects the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities and "there is always intense competition to get issues included in the speech. It’s definitely considered prized placement."

Bromley noted that President George Bush had refused to join a UN statement calling on countries to decriminalise homosexual relations.

"President Obama, in contrast, stood before that same institution to pledge U.S. support for LGBT rights globally," he said.

The United States has, under Obama, led efforts for LGBT at The United Nations and in other international bodies. Obama personally spoke out against Uganda's 'Kill gays' Anti-Homosexuality bill - comments which drew significant attention in Africa. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, His Grace Henry Luke Orombi, said:

“It is distressing that Barack Obama a fellow African would promote racial civil rights as morally equivalent to immoral civil behaviour. We are Africans and know the difference between moral behaviour and responsibility as opposed to civil rights being compared to homosexuality. Will Barack Obama represent our interests in this matter?”

In January Obama said he was "deeply saddened" by the murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato.

In June Obama called the passage of the first LGBT human rights resolution at the United Nations "a significant milestone in the long struggle for equality, and the beginning of a universal recognition that LGBT persons are endowed with the same inalienable rights - and entitled to the same protections - as all human beings."

He said that the United States "stands proudly with those nations that are standing up to intolerance, discrimination, and homophobia."

"LGBT persons are entitled to equal treatment, equal protection, and the dignity that comes with being full members of our diverse societies. As the United Nations begins to codify and enshrine the promise of equality for LGBT persons, the world becomes a safer, more respectful, and more humane place for all people." 

Ugandan lesbian activist Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesera yesterday told the Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution, held to coincide with the UN General Assembly, that "not every war is fought with guns" and that "statements and resolutions from the US help. We need American support against the LGBT hate bill in Uganda." (Video of her speech below, she says Ugandan diplomats told her she should be arrested for treason).

African gay leaders we spoke to saw Obama's latest comments as extremely important for their struggle in a continent where the LGBT movement is growing but faces stiff and organised resistance.

Ali Sudan, President of the underground LGBT group Freedom Sudan, said that the comments "gave me hope".

"LGBT individuals suffer or are killed every day by the hand of their countrymen especially here in Africa and the Middle East," he said. "We need to stand together and keep fighting to gain our rightful rights as humans. I hope his message will inspire many other people to stand with us in this fight."

Stéphane Koche of Cameroon's Association Camerounaise pour la défense de l'homosexualité (ADEFHO) described Obama's UN comments as "very inspiring for the world, including Africans."

"It means a lot. It highlights common values, common hopes, common aspirations and it's very simple to understand."

Braam Hanekom, coordinator of South Africa's PASSOP (People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty), also found the comments "inspiring". He said:

"Despite the immense political challenges we believe he is facing, President Obama was unafraid to address the rights of the LGBTI community. He used a powerful platform and addressed many of our leaders."

"His inclusion should be seen as a clear message and we hope that pressure will be increased on all countries that have failed to protect and/or who have even actively demonized the LGBTI community."

"We should warn him that many of our African leaders are, what I call "chameleons", they tend to "care" for the LGBTI community where it is popular and it benefits them, while in their countries and communities (even in AU meetings), they tend to be homophobic (where and when it benefits them politically). We hope that he will show them that the USA will not support leaders who have failed to recognize the rights of the LGBTI community."

"The USA should also start challenging those who fail to make their position clear, as well as hold accountable those who "claim" to respect LGBTI rights. It is also important to state clearly that many Africans are part of our local LGBTI communities and thus there is no substance to nonsensical claims from certain "right-wing populist" leaders that "it is Un-African", instead it is "Un-African" to disown our brothers and sisters for who they love or what they believe."

David Kuria, a Kenyan gay leader and politician, "read the statement with delight."

"When a President such as Obama with African roots talks in favour of gay rights, at the very least it shows that not everyone is homophobic and that in fact African leaders are in a class of thinning minority."

Kuria said that there are now some African politicians who are prepared to stand up for LGBT "albeit not too loudly." He suggested that they may be "emboldened to be more vocal" if US embassies follow up the comments with "tangible action".

"We are trying as activists," Kuria said, "to build a narrative that shows LGBTI rights as the next cycle of or frontier of Human Rights development in Africa. First we had decolonization, then  women's rights and now the last frontier is LGBTI rights."

"The same arguments, including religious, against LGBTI rights had been used against women's rights so it's not a hard narrative to generate. President Obama's words falls quite in place in this story because his predecessors had prophetically spoken in similar terms of the previous cycle of rights."

Some commentators were more critical. Writing on death + taxes, US gay activist Andrew Belonsky said:

"The real test, however, will be whether the Obama Administration actually works said rights into their policy, especially in Arab nations undergoing Democratic transformations."

"The States have failed to normalize homosexuality in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. If Obama wants to be seen as a man of his word, he and the State Department will make clear that new governments like those in Egypt and Tunisia in need of American support and money have no choice but to accept and celebrate their LGBT citizens. If they don’t, they will be failing the democratic dreams that fueled their uprisings in the first place."

Video of Obama's speech

Jacqueline Kasha's speech

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