Whatever Happened to Obama's Global Gay Rights Agenda?

On the heels of Wednesday's gay marriage rulings at the Supreme Court, a farcical piece of political theater played out on MSNBC.

As the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case were making an appearance on the cable network, Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, wandered into the frame with a phone to his ear and announced that he had Barack Obama on the line, calling from Air Force One. The president offered garbled congratulations through an iPhone speaker phone to the plaintiffs -- Kristin Perry, Sandy Stier, Paul Katami, and Jeff Zarillo -- and MSNBC's national audience.

You can watch the exchange here:

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As it happens, Obama made that call while he was en route to Senegal, where homosexuality is punishable with jail time. It's a country that illustrates the enormous challenges still facing the global gay rights movement.

Senegalese law criminalizes homosexuality, and authorities there have aggressively pursued homosexuals. Officials have, for example, used the possession of materials for treating HIV/AIDS as a basis for trying and persecuting homosexuals, and in 2009 nine men were brought to trial on charges of "improper or unnatural acts with a person of the same sex." After undergoing torture, Amnesty International reports, the men confessed to being gay and were convicted. The court also concluded that the AIDS advocacy organization that they belonged to was a "cover to recruit or organize meetings for homosexuals, under the pretext of providing HIV/AIDS prevention programmes." (The men were released following an international outcry.)

The story in many other African countries is much the same. In Mauritania, which borders Senegal to the north, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Uganda, legislators are trying to crack down on gays and have floated the possibility of imposing the death penalty on homosexuals. According to Amnesty International, 38 countries in Africa criminalize homosexuality. In four of those countries, the punishment is death.

The screenshot below -- courtesy of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association -- maps the countries in Africa where relationships between two men are illegal:

At the same time, the Obama administration has sought to make the promotion of gay rights a central part of its foreign policy agenda. "Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, but in fact they are one and the same. Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights," then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2011, in announcing that the administration would seek to combat efforts overseas to criminalize homosexuality and would devote $3 million to funding gay advocacy groups abroad.

And yet the White House's implementation of that initiative has been decidedly less high-profile than the splashy speech that marked its rollout. Earlier this month, for instance, the U.S. embassy in Ivory Coast hosted a gay pride reception -- a landmark event. But reporters were not allowed to attend, and the only mention of the event taking place came a week afterward, when a short notice was posted on the embassy's website. Administration officials argue that a public, high-profile effort to promote gay rights is unlikely to change deep-seated attitudes on the continent. Instead, the White House is deploying its resources more selectively and by supporting activists in need. Still, the administration's approach has yielded few concrete shifts on gay rights issues around the world.

The president's swing through Senegal offers more evidence of this dynamic. Asked on Air Force One whether Obama would raise gay rights with Senegalese officials, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney offered a tepid assurance. "The issues you raise with regard to the criminalization of homosexuality are significant," he said. "And you can assume that that's something that is both a concern to the President and the administration, and that would be something that we would discuss."

For gay people around the world suffering from discrimination, wanton violence, and persecution, here's the bottom line: The Obama administration cares about you, but they aren't going to be riding to your rescue anytime soon either.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


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