LGBT rights largely took a back seat to economic issues during this week’s summit in D.C. that drew nearly 50 African heads of state.
President Obama on Tuesday broadly mentioned LGBT rights as he spoke with Takunda Chingonzo, a 21-year-old Zimbabwean entrepreneur, during a business forum that Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg co-hosted at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington.
Obama during a speech at the same event announced the U.S. had pledged an additional $33 billion to promote investment and further economic development in Africa.
“Some of the incredible cultures of some of our U.S. businesses that do a really good job promoting people and maintaining a meritocracy, and treating women equally, and treating people of different races and faiths and sexual orientations fairly and equally, and making sure that there are typical norms of how you deal with people in contracts and respect legal constraints,” said Obama. “All those things I think can then take root in a country like Zimbabwe or any other country. Hopefully, governments are encouraging that, not inhibiting that.”
Obama said during a White House dinner on Tuesday that he and his family have been “inspired by Africans — ordinary Africans doing extraordinary things.”
“Farmers boosting their yields, health workers saving lives from HIV/AIDS, advocates standing up for justice and the rule of law, courageous women asserting their rights, entrepreneurs creating jobs, African peacekeepers risking their lives to save the innocent,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday specifically applauded Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, during a forum at the National Academy of Sciences.
“We will continue to stand up and speak for the rights of all persons with disabilities, and we will continue to stand up and speak out for LGBT activists who are working for the day when tolerance and understanding really do conquer hate,” said Kerry. “We will do so because we know that countries are stronger and more stable when people are listened to and given shared power.”
LGBT rights were not specifically included in the agenda of the summit itself that took place at the State Department on Wednesday.
“We have the opportunity to strengthen the governance upon which economic growth and free societies depend,” said Obama before he opened the gathering. “Today we can focus on the ingredients of progress: Rule of law, open government, accountable and transparent institutions, strong civil societies and respect for the universal human rights of all people.”
Homosexuality remains criminalized in more than 30 African countries.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in February signed into law the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill under which those convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts face a life sentence.
The White House subsequently cut aid to the East African country that funded HIV/AIDS programs and other initiatives. The Obama administration in June announced a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for anti-LGBT human rights abuses.
The Ugandan Constitutional Court on Friday struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, arguing parliamentarians passed it last December without the necessary quorum.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in January signed a draconian bill into law that punishes those who enter into same-sex marriages with up to 14 years in prison. The statute also bans anyone from officiating a gay union, bans same-sex “amorous relationships” and membership in an LGBT advocacy group.
Museveni and Jonathan are among the African leaders who attended the White House dinner.
The African leaders, along with Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who described gay men as “vermin” during a February speech that commemorated his country’s independence from the U.K., are among those who posed for pictures with Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as they arrived.
“As the relations between Africa and the United States of America has evolved for centuries with significant impact on the economic and social well-being of our peoples, we believe that this summit is appropriate and laudable,” said Jammeh in a lengthy statement provided to reporters at the U.S. Institute for Peace on Wednesday. “It provides the platform and opportunity to move to a higher level of mutually beneficial cooperation between the United States and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.”
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, the Council for Global Equality and more than a dozen other advocacy organizations late last month urged Obama to highlight LGBT rights during the summit.
“In the lead up to the African leaders summit, this is a time that we and members of civil society and the U.S. government really has to think about how we are addressing sexual minority rights issues overseas, particularly in Africa,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, during a pre-summit forum at the National Press Club in downtown Washington on July 30.
Obama discussed LGBT rights in Africa during a press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall in June 2013 that took place in Dakar, the West African country’s capital, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. Kerry in May touched upon anti-LGBT discrimination during a speech he made in the Ethiopian capital.
“This summit has provided and will continue to be a forum for candid discussions with African leaders on a range of issues, including on LGBT rights,” Ned Price of the National Security Council told the Blade on Tuesday.
Bloomberg — who backed efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Maryland and New York — earlier in the day told the Blade his views in support of LGBT rights “are well known” and he has “never been shy about them.”
He nevertheless stressed it is “not our job to go and try to promote things that I think countries should adopt.”
“I can do that in America as an American,” Bloomberg told the Blade. “I just think that it sort of steps a little bit over the bounds to go into another country and try to change their values. I’m not shy about expressing mine.”
Chalwe Mwansa, a Zambian LGBT rights advocate, is among the 500 fellows with the White House’s Young African Leaders Initiative who met with Obama last week.
Mwansa told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from New York where he is interning with IGLHRC that he is “very, very grateful” to the Obama administration for its public support of LGBT rights in Africa.
He nevertheless said he wished that summit organizers had done more to highlight LGBT rights on the continent.
“We’re Africans; we have our national identities,” Mwansa told the Blade. “There hasn’t been much space, there hasn’t been much platform for the inclusion of LGBTI people.”