Should Barack Obama Be Lecturing Africans on Gay Rights?

Sure, it’s the principled thing to do. But does it do any good?

So US President Barack Obama told Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta his country should improve his record on LGBT rights. I mean, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but I’m just not sure these high-level interventions by outsiders actually do the good they’re intended to. As someone who has lived much of his life in Afro-Caribbean and African countries, and as someone who places himself squarely on the progressive side of the political spectrum, this is an issue that I find can only seem black-and-white to those who are watching from very high ground and a very great distance. Up close, it is often more complex than it appears.

In countries in which the LGBT agenda is rejected as a foreign imposition, well-meaning interventions by foreign leaders can sometimes simply feed this rhetoric — especially in countries, like those of Africa, which have plenty of history behind them a rather understandable suspicion of the ‘civilising’ impulses of foreigners. Rather than fly in, give a speech, then fly out, leaving local gay people to deal with its consequences, I think foreigners might do more good giving quiet support and moral encouragement to those activists in these societies who are plugging away at edifices of oppression. I get a bit uneasy when I listen to some Westerners — whose societies, let us not forget, once made themselves rich off slavery — talk about black countries as if they are still savage lands waiting for the civilisation Westerners will bring to these dark and benighted corners. I have heard gay rights activists from rich countries talk of Africans in a rhetoric that sounds like a cut-and-paste job from some Victorian mission society’s literature: Instead of converting to Christianity, salvation will come in turning oneself into a secularised Westerner who repudiates one’s nasty heritage.

And it’s not like the news is all bad. To deny some of the gains that are being made by sometimes-heroic activists within these societies is to deny them agency. Take Jamaica, a country that white liberals love to condemn for its homophobia because, well, Jamaicans make it easy for them. It’s true that Jamaicans who are asked for their opinions on gay rights can sound like they would delight in burning all gays at the stake. But then, if you ask the average Jamaican their opinion on their politicians, the bus system, the local grocer or their neighbour two doors down, you’ll get much the same response. Jamaicans, the saying goes ‘love chat.’ That’s not to belittle the real violence and discrimination being done in Jamaica, but I do think it’s important to add context. What matters is not what people say they will do but what they are doing, and despite ongoing discrimination, there have been some remarkable strides made by the gay community in just the last few years. In fact, when I look back to my early involvement in Jamaican AIDS activism at the turn of the millennium, I am struck by how many positive changes the country has wrought these last few years — but not so much because of some conversion to Western ways, and more due to referencing of popular religious traditions of compassion. Whereas gay and AIDS activists had to keep their identities secret just a few years ago, now they lobby openly, as do journalists in the media.

I sometimes wonder if this is what really makes some Western liberals ill-at-ease — that the societies which will evolve as a result of these home-grown victories may not be quite the carbon copies of their own that they like to imagine. I remember one close friend of mine, a black gay intellectual from Jamaica, get quite exercised when at a forum in England he heard someone declare ‘If I were a gay man in Jamaica, I’d want to kill myself.’ His response was a sort of ‘how dare you.’ He pointed out that he was not only gay, but he was Jamaican and black, rooted in his culture, and passionately proud of it. And truth be told, behind the headlines of sometimes horrific-sounding homophobia in Jamaica, there is a thriving gay subculture in the island (If you doubt me, let me know, and I’ll point you to some of the island’s best parties). There’s a lot going on beneath the surface, and if you really want to talk the talk, you should first go walk the walk with those who are doing it every day. Some of them are remarkable, unsung heroes who get tired of the stereotypes Westerners still sometimes throw at them.

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