New York – 2008 was an epic year for Africans. A black man, with African roots, won the elections in the most powerful nation in the world.
On the day Barack Obama was sworn-in, I was at a beauty shop where a crowd gathered around a 14-inch television to see their ‘brother’, icon and pride swear-in as the first US African American president. Thereafter, we walked with a sense of accomplishment. After all, Obama is not just black, his father was Kenyan.
The people of East Africa felt elevated. He is Luo, so the Luo ethnicities in East Africa declared themselves intelligent. Ugandans demonstrated their love for Obama by making chapattis (flat bread) and naming them after him. They wore Obama T-shirts, placed Obama stickers on their cars or wheelbarrows, and named their children and pets Obama.
Their love for the man was not necessarily based on his policies or performance at the White House – it was innate. Besides, Ugandans are not always keen on the intricacies of American policies. So when the Obama administration asked President Yoweri Museveni’s government to respect the rights of homosexual people, Ugandans murmured that the US was corrupting the African people’s sense of morality.
Obama was, presumably, a wayward son who would one day find his way back home where homosexuality is considered a perversion. But when, in May, Obama became the first American president to openly support gay marriages, the murmurs turned into fury. I watched the announcement on a plasma screen at Colline hotel in Mukono where I was attending a media workshop.
Adolf Mbaine, a media ethics lecturer at Makerere University, was livid.
“They do not support polygamy. But they want us to embrace homosexuals. Obama has betrayed Africans. He is a shame to us,” he said.
Dr Aaron Mushengyezi – acting head of the Journalism department – and many others agreed. They said homosexuality was repugnant to both African culture and religious values. Dr Patricia Litho, a women’s rights activist, took a somewhat moderate stand.
She said that while homosexuals should be allowed to have their rights as human beings, they should not brandish their form of sexuality for all to see. Litho feels that homosexuals blow their issues “out of proportion.” Like Litho, an estimated 95% support the Anti-homosexuality Bill.
They cannot comprehend what got into Obama’s head to declare that he supports same-sex marriage. The Ugandan Constitution and other marriage laws recognize marriage as being strictly between man and woman. It may be either one man, one woman; or one man and several women. Homosexuality is criminalized as an unnatural offence under the Penal Code.
But US international policy is very strong on protection of gay rights worldwide. Instead of the gentle prompting of the past, America will now actively get involved. By openly supporting gay marriages, Obama set a potentially costly precedent. Some conservatives might punish him at the ballot box later this year.
But according to Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a moderate group of republicans which support fairness and equality for homosexual people, Obama has set the bar high. Even the most stalwart opponents of same-sex marriage in America recognize that it will be hard for subsequent US presidents to backtrack on Obama’s achievements.
And clearly, countries like Uganda have not heard the last of the US administration advocacy for homosexual rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
In what US assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Michael H. Posner, terms “an evolution in diplomacy,” the US government is determined to push for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people as a matter of universal human rights separate from culture, religion or morality.
“America is in a different place now. This reality does not change regardless of who is president,” Posner said.
But is the rest of the world and Africa in particular in a different place too?
Posner is optimistic that African leaders are open to constructive conversation on the LGBT issue. And that while there might not be consensus on same-sex marriages, the world can make progress in protecting gay people from violence, torture and discrimination.