When The U.S. Pushes For LGBT Rights In Africa, Is There A Backlash? : Goats and Soda For the past four years, the U.S. government has engaged in an ambitious campaign for LGBT rights around the world. But American support can be a double-edged sword.

When The U.S. Backs Gay And Lesbian Rights In Africa, Is There A Backlash?

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Over the last four years, the Obama administration has championed an ambitious campaign to defend the rights of LGBT people overseas, especially in Africa. Homosexuality is illegal across much of the African continent.

NPR's Gregory Warner brings us two LGBT activists who are wrestling with the double-edged sword of American support. When more visibility can mean more vulnerability, an outsider's protection can complicate the path to acceptance.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Everyone knew when President Obama made his visit to Kenya last summer that he would say something about gay rights. American activists were pressing him to condemn Kenya's colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime.

Kenyan politicians were grandstanding against unwelcome lectures from the West. And in all this debate over the politics, many members of the Kenyan LGBT community wanted one thing above all - safety.

JOHN MATHENGE: That was the most tense, you know - our life. Like, we were so worried before Obama came.

WARNER: John Mathenge is director of a local community center and clinic in Nairobi. It's called HOYMAS. He says in the weeks before Obama's visit, homophobic attacks increased all across Kenya. People were so scared that they stopped coming to his clinic, even to pick up HIV meds. Finally, the day of the visit arrived.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've been consistent all across Africa on this.

WARNER: President Obama spoke at a press conference at the Kenyan Statehouse.


OBAMA: I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law.

WARNER: And when the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, rose to respond, he at first seemed to hide behind the culture argument.


PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: It's very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.

WARNER: But then he uttered a phrase - a phrase that somehow seemed to appease both Kenyans opposed to gay rights and many members of the Kenyan LGBT community.


KENYATTA: For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue.

WARNER: Gay rights, he said, is a non-issue in Kenya. Now, this moment of a much longer press conference was seized on by American commentators as a rebuttal to Obama or even a rationalization for violence.

But John Mathenge the gay activist says that phrase saved lives. The anti-gay rhetoric from Kenyan politicians immediately cooled down. An anti-homosexuality bill in Parliament was quietly killed.

MATHENGE: When the president spoke, like, it's a non-issue, he told people, concentrate on things to build the country - not to think about people's bed.

WARNER: John Mathenge, I should say, is not the conflict-avoiding type. He is an openly gay man in Kenya. That's a rarity. And he's a named plaintiff on a lawsuit in Kenyan courts trying to strike down that law that makes homosexuality illegal. So he is someone who has sought the spotlight despite the dangers.

What dismays him about the American campaign for LGBT rights in Africa is not that it makes the community or their issues more visible. It's that it bolsters, unintentionally, a piece of propaganda that's often used to discredit African activists.

MATHENGE: This is not a Kenyan thing. This is a Western thing. Why is he being pushed by the white man?

WARNER: This idea that homosexuality is a kind of Western import - it's particularly demoralizing to Mathenge when he recalls his long, hard journey to come out - first to himself and then to his family.

MATHENGE: I've always been who I am. And I will remain who I am. I know they say sometimes we are agent of the white people, or we are agent of the Obama. No. That's a lie.

WARNER: But that lie does make it harder to gain the trust, let alone the acceptance, of his fellow Kenyans. And so Mathenge says he does want President Obama and U.S. diplomats to keep speaking out.

MATHENGE: But at the same time, they should only speak when we speak.

WARNER: When I left Mathenge's office, though, I wondered how people would answer this question in a country where gays and lesbians can't risk such a public stance - where coming out can be even more perilous. So I left Nairobi. And I flew over the border to Kampala, Uganda. And I met this guy.

MATHENGE: My name is Pepe Julian Onziema.

MATHENGE: Onziema is a transgender man and a Ugandan activist. And just two days before my arrival, he'd been arrested at a secret gay pride event at a private bar. This was his fifth arrest in Uganda over the last eight years. But this time was different. Not only were the police more violent - they beat him with batons on the way to the station - but they also taunted him for his American support.

PEPE JULIAN ONZIEMA: They're like, OK. Let's see how your American money is going to get you out of this today. It's definitely connected to the perceptions that they have about us - that we have money, that the West has given us money and that, you know, the West is protecting us.

WARNER: Onziema says he can almost understand his tormentors because he is a well-known Ugandan LGBT activist in a country where America is paying attention to this issue. Onziema enjoys a political clout that's far out of reach of the average Ugandan.

He can call a U.S. diplomat on his cell phone or a high-level government official. And these Ugandan cops seem to resent him for it. Once off the police truck and booked at the station, Onziema was tossed into a prison cell where inmates were instructed to take care of him.

ONZIEMA: So it was in there that, you know, the beating started. They just, like, kept on hitting and hitting and hitting me. And thank God for the intervention that, you know, the one hour ended when it did.

WARNER: It only ended because of the hurried tweets that Onziema and others had made earlier to alert the U.S. Embassy. And the Americans intervened.

The irony is that in a way, it was the American money - or not the American money but your American connections - that did get you out of that prison.

ONZIEMA: Yes. Our so-called U.S. money saved us anyway (laughter). Oh, man.

WARNER: Now, every American attempt to intervene around the world is always going to risk unintended consequences. But Onziema faces a particularly cruel paradox. The more public protection he gets from America, from the American-backed Ugandan government, the more he's an object of envy and outrage from ordinary Ugandans and, thus, the more protection he needs.

ONZIEMA: The irony of American money is just the power it gives you and then how powerless it leaves you at the same time.

WARNER: How should Americans feel about that?

ONZIEMA: Exactly. I think the fact that I'm sitting here talking - they should feel proud.

WARNER: Proud that he's not still in a prison cell - proud that he's even able to discuss these fairly nuanced contradictions of diplomacy - proud that he has a voice, even if it came at a price. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kampala.


SIEGEL: That story is part of an NPR and member stations project called A Nation Engaged, in which we look at America's role in the world and issues that the next president will face.

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