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On President Barack Obama’s three-nation trip to Africa in June, reporters asked him at a press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act the previous day. Obama took the opportunity to press Sall on gay rights in Senegal, where homosexuality remains illegal. At the time, Sall rebuffed Obama, saying Senegal was “not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.”
It seems clear that its leaders are still not ready.
On Thursday, charges were brought against five women in Senegal for violating the country’s law prohibiting homosexual acts. According to The Associated Press, one of the women is a member of Women’s Smile, the only lesbian-rights group that currently operates in the country.
Despite Sall’s affirmation alongside Obama that his country was “very tolerant,” many analysts and advocates beg to differ.
“Articles 320 and 321 of the penal code disparage same-sex contact as an ‘unnatural act’ and stipulate one to five years jail for offenders, with an automatic five-year term if one or both partners are under 21,” said Peter Tatchell, director of the human-rights organization the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
He added that the laws deviated from Senegal’s basic legal principles.
"Senegal’s anti-gay laws violate the country’s own constitution and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, both of which guarantee equal treatment and nondiscrimination to all citizens.” Senegal is a signatory to the African Charter.
While Thursday’s cases in Senegal were the most recent example of anti-gay sentiment in Africa, it is not unique.
“This is not uncommon in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Cristina M. Finch, managing director of the women’s human-rights program at Amnesty International USA. “It is illegal in 38 African countries — Senegal being one of them,” she said.
Being found guilty of homosexuality is even subject to the death penalty in Mauritania and Sudan, something that has also been considered in draft versions of Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is still under debate.
Of the Senegal news this week, Tatchell said “this is just the latest of many homophobic witch hunts which have swept across Africa in recent months and years, including in Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Gambia, Malawi, Zambia and Ghana.”
Even in South Africa, widely acknowledged as having the friendliest climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Africa, with equality mandated in its legal system, there has been a rash of anti-gay trends and hate crimes. Amnesty reports that at least seven people were killed in 2012 because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In a Pew Research Center survey (pdf) from June, over 60 percent of South African respondents said homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
Moreover, while anti-gay attitudes are often thought of in terms of gay men, Finch pointed out that lesbians, like the women charged in Senegal, often find at greater risk for human-rights violations.
A June report by Amnesty International noted that it is not uncommon in several African countries for lesbians to be “deliberately targeted for sexual violence.”
“Some deem this practice ‘curative’ or ‘corrective’ rape, laboring under the belief that if the victim has sex with a man, she will be ‘cured’ of being a lesbian,” the report said.
Even with the troubling picture all around, many dispute that anti-gay attitudes are somehow inherent in African culture, its current prevalence in the continent’s politics notwithstanding.
“There is in fact a long history of same-sex sexuality and nonnormative gender identities in sub-Saharan Africa,” according to Amnesty International, although many African countries’ leaders — including those of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Liberia — have tried to paint homosexuality as somehow alien to African culture.
Despite the trends against gay rights, the issue is not static.
Since 2004, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe and the Seychelles have decriminalized homosexuality.
And South Africa, despite a culture of anti-LGBT sentiment that remains ingrained, became the first African country and only the fifth country in the world to mandate marriage equality under the law — something that remains unrealized in the U.S.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the Crimea region of Ukraine might already be lost to Russian control