U.S. Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm Than Good

Norimitsu Onishidec, New York Times, December 20, 2015

Suspicious neighbors and landlords pry into their private lives. Blackmailers hunt for victims on the social media sites they use to meet others of the same sex. Police officers routinely stop them to search for incriminating images and chats on their cellphones.

Since an anti-gay law went into effect last year, many gay Nigerians say they have been subjected to new levels of harassment, even violence.

They blame the law, the authorities and broad social intolerance for their troubles. But they also blame an unwavering supporter whose commitment to their cause has been unquestioned and conspicuous across Africa: the United States government.

“The U.S. support is making matters worse,” said Mike, 24, a university student studying biology in Minna, a town in central Nigeria who asked that his full name not be used for his safety. “There’s more resistance now. It’s triggered people’s defense mechanism.”

Four years ago, the American government embarked on an ambitious campaign to expand civil rights for gay people overseas by marshaling its diplomats, directing its foreign aid and deploying President Obama to speak before hostile audiences.

Since 2012, the American government has put more than $700 million into supporting gay rights groups and causes globally. More than half of that money has focused on sub-Saharan Africa–just one indication of this continent’s importance to the new policy.

America’s money and public diplomacy have opened conversations and opportunities in societies where the subject was taboo just a few years ago. But they have also made gay men and lesbians more visible–and more vulnerable to harassment and violence, people on both sides of the gay rights issue contend. The American campaign has stirred misgivings among many African activists, who say they must rely on the West’s support despite often disagreeing with its strategies.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, the final passage of the 2014 law against homosexuality–which makes same-sex relationships punishable by 14 years in prison and makes it a crime to organize or participate in any type of gay meeting–is widely regarded by both supporters and opponents of gay rights as a reaction to American pressure on Nigeria and other African nations to embrace gay rights.

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Anti-gay sentiments are widespread across Africa. Same-sex relations remain illegal in most nations, the legacy of colonial laws that had been largely forgotten until the West’s push to repeal them in recent years.

Fierce opposition has come from African governments and private organizations, which accuse the United States of cultural imperialism. Pressing gay rights on an unwilling continent, they say, is the latest attempt by Western nations to impose their values on Africa.

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{snip} Even men infected with H.I.V. are often reluctant to seek treatment at hospitals, fearing that the authorities will be called, said Stella Iwuagwu, executive director of the Center for the Right to Health, an H.I.V. patient and rights group based in Lagos.

“Before, these people were leading their lives quietly, and nobody was paying any attention to them,” Ms. Iwuagwu said. “Before, a lot of people didn’t even have a clue there were something called gay people. But now they know and now they are outraged. Now they hear that America is bringing all these foreign lifestyles. They are emboldened by the law. The genie has already left the bottle.”

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