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The Obama Administration's bold but risky plan to make Africa gay-friendly

MONROVIA, Liberia -- After their private ceremony in the Liberian capital, a newly married gay couple traveled with a small group of friends to a strip of shore known locally as Miami Beach. It was a Sunday in late January, a time of year when the sky is often thick with haze, but the private beach was crowded anyway. The group, mostly young gay men, had just started in on their Club Beer, chicken, and Pringles when another beachgoer walked directly into one of the newlyweds. He refused to apologize to "a bunch of fags" and an argument broke out, but it was defused when the beach's owner threatened to kick them all out if the commotion continued. The man walked off and no one in the wedding party thought much of it.

When they left around 6 pm, the group found a mob of some 20 people waiting for them. The mob threw stones and empty bottles, and the besieged wedding party threw them back. When it was over, only one of them had more than minor injuries: a member of the group had passed out after an asthma attack and had to be carried away. But the altercation, and the violent homophobia that sparked it, highlight the rising tensions surrounding gay rights in Liberia -- tensions that have only become more visible since the announcement of a new U.S. policy intended to counter them.

Last December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, proclaiming that "gay rights are human rights" and announcing the U.S.'s first government-wide policy to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas (the speech coincided with a memorandum issued by President Obama). She vowed "to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights" but was light on specifics. Within days, newspapers in Liberia -- one of America's closest allies in the region -- were condemning the policy in particular and homosexuality in general. Sub-Saharan Africa is marked by widespread homophobia as well as chronic dependence on foreign aid, in particular from the U.S., and the idea that those two issues might now be linked seemed to upset a lot of people here.

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