June 27, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Obama talks DOMA, gay rights in Africa
Barack Obama, Election 2012, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama on Thursday talked about DOMA and gay rights in Africa. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

During his high-profile trip Africa, President Obama said on Thursday he believes the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA should be implemented broadly to provide gay couples the federal benefits of marriage wherever they live in the country, although his administration is still examining the legal implications of the ruling.

Obama made the remarks during a joint news conference with Senegal President Macky Sall that took place in the presidential palace in Dakar. The reporter asked Obama to respond to the DOMA ruling and the state of gay rights in Senegal, where same-sex relations is still criminalized.

With respect to DOMA, Obama said the ruling was “not simply a victory for the LGBT community, it’s a victory for American democracy” and noted he had a phone call with New York widow and lawsuit plaintiff Edith Windsor after the decision was announced.

“I believe at the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law,” Obama said. “We believe in basic fairness. And what I think yesterday’s ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody.”

Amid calls from LGBT advocates for the Obama administration to interpret the decision as broadly as possible to ensure all federal benefits are available to married same-sex couples, Obama said his personal belief is that the maximum amount of benefits should flow.

“It’s my personal belief — but I’m speaking now as a President as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple,” Obama said. “But I’m speaking as a President, not a lawyer.”

Obama said prior to the decision, he had already instructed White House counsel to work with lawyers across every federal agency “to start getting a sense” for the implications of administratively applying a rule that says federal benefits apply to all married couples — gay or straight. Anticipating the result, Obama gave assurances the implementation of whatever benefits are available would happen as quickly as possible.

“So we’re going to be evaluating all these issues and making sure that we work through them in a systematic and prompt way, because now that the Supreme Court has spoken it’s important that people who deserve these benefits know that they’re getting them quickly,” Obama said.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s words are a good start as HRC looks to the administration for a broad implementation of federal benefits for same-sex couples.

“It’s certainly very positive news,” Sainz said. “This president has been an ardent defender of LGBT people and this is indication of that. We’re looking forward to guidance from the Administration as to how all legally married gay couples will get the same federal benefits.”

In response to the question about the criminalization of homosexuality in Senegal, Obama said the issue didn’t come up in bilateral conversations as he spoke more broadly about his opposition to discrimination in any form.

“But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” Obama said. “I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view. And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.”

Perhaps acknowledging the culture of Senegal, where 96 percent of the population practice Islam, Obama maintained he respects the customs and traditions in different countries.

“The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa,” Obama said. “So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions.  And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.”

In his response to the question, Sall struck a different tone, saying his country won’t decriminalize homosexuality as he maintained his country is very tolerant and doesn’t believe in discrimination.

“We don’t tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different,” Sall said. “But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality. I’ve already said it in the past, in our Cabinet meeting it is Senegal’s option, at least for the time being, while we have respect for the rights of homosexuals — but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law.”

Andre Banks, executive director for the LGBT global equality group All Out, praised Obama for speaking out in favor of equality and amid growing concerns of anti-gay activity in Africa.

“Nigeria and Uganda are threatening to bring in even harsher anti-gay laws that will ruin more lives, and Cameroon is aggressively hunting down and prosecuting people because of who they are and who they love,” Banks said. “Other African nations like Senegal who claim they aren’t ready to end laws that make it a crime to gay need to hear Obama’s words and know the tide of love and equality is rising. Customs and cultures may differ, but there is never a legitimate reason for denying a person equality under the law because of who they are and who they love.”

Frank Mugisha, a gay Uganda activist who has worked against the “Kill the Gays” bill in the country, told the Washington Blade he welcomes Obama’s remarks and thinks they’re significant.

“Some are saying, ‘We don’t need pressure from outside,’” Mugisha said. “For me I think it is important that Obama mentions gay rights on his trip to Africa, if he had not I would be disappointed, Africa has been in the spot light in the recent years on abuse and violation of gay people and any world leader would want to mention that. I do not know why people are OK when world leaders talk about all the other issues in Africa and when they talk about homosexuality then it becomes a problem. Homosexuality like any other rights is a universal human right and any one can speak out against these violations any where any time.”

A partial transcript of the Q&A between the reporter and Obama and Sall follow:

REPORTER:  Thank you, Mr. President.  You called the DOMA ruling a victory for couples everywhere who are seeking equal treatment under the law.  But this leaves unanswered questions for couples in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.  And now it’s largely up to you.  Will you direct the government to make sure that federal benefits are extended, like Social Security, to all couples, no matter where they live?  And will you comment generally on the historic nature of yesterday’s rulings?  Also, did you press President Sall to make sure that homosexuality is decriminalized in Senegal?

And, President Sall, may I ask you, sir — thank you, first of all, for your hospitality.  You just said you embrace democracy and freedom.  As this country’s new President, sir, will you work to decriminalize homosexuality in this country?

….

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, first of all, I think the Supreme Court ruling yesterday was not simply a victory for the LGBT community, it’s a victory for American democracy.  I believe at the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law.  We believe in basic fairness.  And what I think yesterday’s ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody.

When I spoke to Ms. Windsor — 83 years old — and I thought about the 40 years of her relationship and her partner, who is now passed, for her to live to see this day where that relationship was the vehicle whereby more people received their rights and are recognized as a testament to the love and commitment that they have made to each other, that was special.  And that’s just a microcosm of what it meant for families and their children all across America.  So it was a proud day I think for America.

Now, as you point out, there are a whole lot of implications that flow from it, because the Supreme Court did not make a blanket ruling that applies nationally, but rather lifted up the ability of states to recognize the dignity and respect of same-sex marriage, and that the federal government couldn’t negate the decision by those states.  We now have to comb through every federal statute.  And although we hadn’t pre-judged what the ruling had been, I had asked my White House Counsel to help work with lawyers across every agency in the federal government to start getting a sense of what statutes would be implicated and what it will mean for us to administratively apply the rule that federal benefits apply to all married couples.

What’s true though is that you still have a whole bunch of states that do not recognize it.  The Supreme Court continues to leave it up to the states to make these decisions.  And we are going to have to go back and do a legal analysis of what that means.  It’s my personal belief — but I’m speaking now as a President as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple.  But I’m speaking as a President, not a lawyer.

So we’re going to be evaluating all these issues and making sure that we work through them in a systematic and prompt way, because now that the Supreme Court has spoken it’s important that people who deserve these benefits know that they’re getting them quickly.  And I know that, for example, Chuck Hagel already mentioned some work that the Department of Defense is doing on that front.  And I think we’re going to be seeing that in all the various agencies.

Now, this topic did not come up in the conversation that I had with President Sall in a bilateral meeting.  But let me just make a general statement.  The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa.  So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions.  And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.

But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.  I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort.  That’s my personal view.  And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.

So my basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally.  And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.

Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated.  And I think that applies here as well.

PRESIDENT SALL:  (As interpreted.)  Now, on the issue of homosexuality, Mr. President, you did make a long development on this issue.  But you said something very important — general principles which all nations could share, and that is the respect for the human being and non-discrimination.  But these issues are all societal issues basically, and we cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries — you said it, we all have different cultures.  We have different religions.  We have different traditions.  And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don’t share the same views.

Senegal, as far as it is concerned, is a very tolerant country which does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being.  We don’t tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different.  But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.  I’ve already said it in the past, in our Cabinet meeting it is Senegal’s option, at least for the time being, while we have respect for the rights of homosexuals — but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law.

But of course this does not mean that we are all homophobic.  But the society has to absolve these issues.  It has to take time to digest them, bringing pressure to bear upon them, on such issues.  It is just like the capital punishment.  In our country, we have abolished it for many years.  In other countries, it is still the order of the day, because the situation in the country requires it.  And we do respect the choice of each country.  But please be assured that Senegal is a country of freedom and homosexuals are not being prosecuted, persecuted.  But we must also show respect for the values and choices of the other Senegalese people.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

4 Comments
  • Mr. Obama should consider the potential backlash of pushing his views concerning LGBT “rights” on cultures that perceive gayness with other modes of reasoning. He may well be putting gay folk at risk; favoring his domestic political views over the inevitability that gay Africans will suffer not only because they are gay, but also because they will be seen as the tools of colonialism and oppression.

    Writing in the Naval Law Review, Major Scott A. DiRocco states that American Exceptionalism threatens to erode our national power.

    Reviewing Andrew Bacevich’s book, “In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” he says, “It is this belief in our exceptionalism, … that our leaders have relied upon to attempt to exercise hegemony over the world and reshape it in our image. Today, however, in the midst of an eight-year ‘global war on terror’ with no end in sight, this belief in our exceptionalism threatens to erode our national power.”.

    Similarly, Stephen M. Walt observed in the November 2011 issue of “Foreign Policy” that, “The United States talks a good game on human rights and international law, but it has refused to sign most human rights treaties, is not a party to the International Criminal Court, and has been all too willing to cozy up to dictators — remember our friend Hosni Mubarak? — with abysmal human rights records. If that were not enough, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the George W. Bush administration's reliance on waterboarding, extraordinary rendition, and preventive detention should shake America's belief that it consistently acts in a morally superior fashion. Obama's decision to retain many of these policies suggests they were not a temporary aberration.”.

    This article is old, but it is worth a look:
    http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2011/12/22/gay-rights-and-american-foreign-policy/

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