As part of the project A Nation Engaged, NPR and member stations are exploring America's role in the world heading into the presidential election.
Everyone knew President Obama would say something about gay rights when he visited Kenya last summer. Many American activists were pressing him to publicly condemn Kenya's colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime.
But Kenyan gays and lesbians were wary. In the weeks leading up to Obama's visit, Kenyan politicians took to the airwaves to assert their anti-gay bona fides. Deputy President William Ruto gave a guest sermon in a church to announce that Kenya "had no room" for homosexuality. As the vitriol increased, so did the incidents of violence, from assaults to rape.
"That was the most tense [period] in our life, before Obama came," says John Mathenge, the director of a community center and health clinic in Nairobi called HOYMAS — Health Options for Young Men with HIV/AIDS and STIs. His clinic usually averages 50 visitors a day; in the weeks before Obama's arrival there were no more than two or three. "People weren't even coming to collect their ARVs [anti-retroviral medication] because they feared they were going to be attacked."
It wasn't just Kenyans who were worried. OutRight Action International, a New York-based not-for-profit that advocates for LGBT rights around the world, took the position that President Obama should not mention gay rights when he visited Kenya.
"LGBTI rights have become a political lightning rod," explained OutRight director Jessica Stern. Though the organization is devoted to pressing for gay rights overseas, she urged the U.S. government to push for "substance over symbolism" — that is, working behind the scenes to improve the legal and social climate for LGBT people rather than issuing too many public pronouncements that could be seen as finger-wagging and that could compromise the efforts of local activists. "We know it's very easy for LGBTI Africans to be discredited as Western," she said. (The acronym is a version of LGBT and stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.")
Over the past four years, the U.S. government has engaged in an ambitious campaign to defend the rights of gay and lesbian people overseas, especially in Africa, where the majority of countries outlaw homosexuality and anti-gay sentiment remains strong. But African activists struggle with the double-edged sword of American support. While they say that U.S. attention has given a needed boost to their movement, the protection of an outsider can complicate the path to true acceptance.
John Mathenge, the director of the HOYMAS clinic, is not the type to avoid conflict: He's an openly gay man in Kenya and a plaintiff in a suit to strike down the the law that makes homosexuality illegal. He has sought out the spotlight, despite the dangers. But he bristles when his opponents dismiss him as a "Western agent" or "Obama's agent" because he's gay. The politicization of his identity makes it harder to have those one-on-one conversations with ordinary Kenyans — his neighbors or shopkeepers — to gain their trust.
So on July 25, 2015 — the day of Obama's visit — Mathenge watched the bilateral presidential press conference on TV with a mix of hope and anxiety. He was proud, and a little worried, when President Obama, as expected, defended gay and lesbian rights as part of "the principle of treating people equally under the law."
When Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta rose to respond, he seemed at first to refuse Obama's call to support LGBT rights, saying: "It's very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept." But then Kenyatta uttered an ambiguous phrase, one that appeased both Kenyans opposed to gay rights and also members of the Kenyan LGBT community. He said, "For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue."
Kenyan LGBT activists say that phrase saved lives. While some American commentators read it as a further rebuttal to Obama or even a rationalization for anti-gay violence, many Kenyans saw it as a call to drop the issue. Many Kenyan politicians stopped spouting anti-gay rhetoric. An anti-homosexuality bill in parliament — which would have been far more onerous than Kenya's current statute — was quietly dropped.
Would LGBT Africans be safer if their supporters were more like Kenyatta and less like Obama? Has public advocacy from America to make gays and lesbians more visible also left them more vulnerable?
Probably so, says Julie Dorf, a senior adviser at the Council for Global Equality — but she's quick to add that the backlash is not America's fault. The rise of anti-gay violence and anti-gay legislation in parts of Africa, she says, is a response to the success of an indigenous gay rights movement that the U.S. has helped foster. She points to recent legislative victories on the continent: the African Commission on Human and People's Rights issued a first-ever resolution condemning violence against LGBT people; Mozambique and Seychelles decriminalized same-sex acts; and a draconian Ugandan law (once dubbed by activists, in a previous incarnation, the "Kill The Gays Bill") was invalidated by the Ugandan High Court, a ruling that many credit to U.S. pressure.
Other African countries have not only cracked down harder on gay people and gay rights groups but used that crackdown to muzzle other human rights efforts. Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, agrees that "politicians manipulate this issue for their own ends using whatever rhetoric is convenient at the time." Gays and lesbians and transgender people would be political scapegoats whether or not America was involved. But the Western support does add "complications," he says, for example, when the international community appears to express more outrage about anti-gay violence than about political violence or election rigging. Reid says "it can sometimes be the case that international voices speak out more vocally around LGBT issues than around other human rights abuses and that does create a very skewed perception ... that [Western] countries are only outraged about violations against LGBT people."
The perception in some African countries — that gays and lesbians and transgender people are a group with special status in the West — can be both a blessing and a curse. Pepe Julian Onziema experienced this, in a terrifying way, earlier this month. A transgender man and Ugandan LGBT activist, Onziema was arrested at a gay pride event at a private bar in Kampala. It was his fifth arrest in Uganda, but this time, not only were the police much more violent — beating him with batons on the way to the station — but they also expressed hate for his perceived privilege. "They're like OK, let's see how your American money is going to get you out of this today," Onziema remembers the police saying. "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 the West is protecting us."
Onziema says he can understand his tormenters. Because he's a well-known LGBT activist in a country where America is paying attention to the issue, Onziema enjoys a political clout far out of reach of the average Ugandan. He can call a U.S. diplomat or Ugandan parliamentarian on his cellphone. These Ugandan cops resented 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. They began by beating him. The beating was followed by a public stripping, forced showers and other acts of humiliation. Then came the rape threats. Onziema says the situation could have gotten much worse, for him and the others arrested at the bar, had they not been released about an hour later.
That quick release was thanks largely to the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, which was alerted by the hurried tweets and phone calls that Onziema and others had sent out earlier. The irony was not lost on Onziema that they were saved, if not by American money per se then certainly by their access to Americans. "Our so-called U.S. money saved us anyway," Onziema sighed.
When I ask him why he sighed, he spelled out a cruel paradox: The more public protection he gets from America, and from the American-backed Ugandan government, the more he can become an object of envy and outrage by ordinary Ugandans and thus the more protection he seems to need. "The irony of American money, it's the power it gives you, and then how powerless it leaves you at the same time," he said.
But how should Americans feel about that? I asked him.
Onziema paused for several long seconds, tugging on his left ear. It had been less than 48 hours since his release from jail, and he was still having trouble hearing from that ear because of the beating he'd received behind bars. Finally he smiled, a wry smile. "I think the fact that I'm sitting here talking to you? They should feel proud."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've been consistent all across Africa on this.
WARNER: President Obama spoke at a press conference at the Kenyan Statehouse.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.