President Obama challenges Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Obama visited Kenya and Ethiopia last week. There was an interesting exchange between President Obama and the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta. It had to do with gay rights.
A reporter asked a compound question that included Kenya’s stance on gay rights. The answers from the two presidents could not be more different. It was amazing to watch two intelligent heads of state who differed profoundly, handle the question with dignity, respect, and honesty.
President Obama answered directly and unequivocally. The U.S. president admonished all those who would limit rights. “If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently,” President Obama said, “that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.”
President Obama then made it personal. “As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently under the law,” President Obama said. “There were all sorts of rationalizations that were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery, and they were wrong.”
The U.S. President then said if someone is obeying all the laws of the land they should not be judged differently because of who they love. “The state does not need to weigh in on religious doctrine,” President Obama said. “The state just has to say we are going to treat everybody equally under the law. And then everybody else can have their own opinions.”
President Kenyatta was just as unequivocal. He first stated that the United States and Kenya shared many values including a love for democracy, entrepreneurship, and value for families. He said there are things that they don’t share. He said there are some things the Kenyan culture and society do not accept. He said it is difficult to impose on people what they do not accept.
“For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other issues that really are day-to-day issues for our people,” President Kenyatta said.
The Kenyan President then enumerated issues that Kenyans are most concerned about. These included health, women rights, infrastructure, etc. He left the door open to revisit the gay rights issue however. “Maybe once, like you have, overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones,” Kenyatta said. “But as of now, the fact remains that this issue is not really an issue that is in the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact.”
It is good for the United States to push other countries to be more inclusive and to support rights for all. We should note however that it is only recently that we have provided full rights to gays. It should be noted that we still support the inhumanity of the death penalty, a practice most countries we moralize to do not partake in. One should also note that we have yet to fully acknowledge systemic racism and homophobia at home. So we must be humble as we encourage other countries to do what we have just done or have not yet accomplished.