Unintended Consequences Undermine Gay Rights in Africa

U.S. Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm Than Good, and that’s the New York Times’ summation.

The paper reports:

After 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 overt 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 safety reasons. “There’s more resistance now. It’s triggered people’s defense mechanism.”

And there’s this:

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. … But tying developmental assistance to gay rights has fueled anger across the continent.

Anti-gay American evangelicals have blood on their hands here, but resistance to liberal America’s attempt to impose its values also is a significant factor.

Good intentions expressed through heavy handed actions by a foreign government can and will backfire. A better strategy would be quiet support by privately funded NGOs backing locally controlled LGBT efforts, rather than the U.S. government throwing money around and issuing ultimatums, even if that’s what U.S. LGBT lobbies want to see.

20 Comments for “Unintended Consequences Undermine Gay Rights in Africa”

  1. posted by Dale of the Desert on

    Stephen, can you give us a specific example of when, where, and how civil rights have been achieved for lgbt people through friendly persuasion alone?

    Can you give us any example where resistance to lgbt oppression has not triggered greater oppression before turning the tide toward justice?

    Can you describe your idea of an acceptable end point in any lgbt movement toward social justice?

    • posted by Tom Jefferson 3rd on

      The U.K. Conservatives seem happy to tie development aid to a countries willingness to make certain advances in human rights, including LGBT rights.

      So, I am not sure why the America conservatives are upset about similar measures in the United States – excluding the standard conservative-religious arguments.

      American foreign policy is never going to be driven exclusively by human rights concerns. Quite a few administrations have put a human rights spin on their foreign policy (some more legitimate than others), but the “big picture” will always be more important.

      Each (generally in this context we mean, developing) country is at a different place with regards to SOGI issues, and they are often at various, different stages with regards to most human rights concerns.

      Sometimes the SOGI conversation is limited to anti-violence initiatives and access to fact based health and human services, including AIDS/HIV education.

      Sometimes even this sort of conversation is still not possible, and sometimes (not as much as we would like) the conservation is ready to talk about civil rights laws and marriage equality.

  2. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    As the writers Stephen cited in “Our Real Enemies” (July 13) pointed out, “authoritarian governments fan hatreds to distract people from their failures and keep themselves in power”. It is not surprising, then, that countries led by homophobes (most countries in the Middle East, Russia and many countries emerging the former Soviet Union, for example) double down when put under pressure from the United States.

    IGF contains many posts urging LGBT’s in the United States to take up the cause of gays and lesbians living in countries where gays and lesbians are oppressed in other countries.

    I agree with that idea. Although our battle is by no means over in the United States — when it comes to our own rights, we are just emerging from a long history of legally sanctioned oppression, and could easily move backwards on the gains we have made if decisions like Romer, Lawrence, Windsor and Obergefell are reversed and/or a conservative Christians succeed in pushing a Republican President/Congress to rescind President Obama’s executive orders and limit/restrict/curtail the gains we have made through legislation — the struggle for gay/lesbian equality under the law is a global struggle. Gays and lesbians in the United States and other Western countries should take an active part in that struggle, particularly since the conservative Christian right has played an active and (at least some would argue) pivotal role in aiding and abetting homophobic authoritarian governments in Russia, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

    However, it doesn’t seem to me that the effort should be limited to private actions by individuals and NGO’s. I agree with conservatives like James Kirchick (“Stop Subsidizing Homophobia”, James Kirchick, November 20, 2009) and Jennifer Vanasco (“Gays Without Borders”, Jennifer Vanasco, February 24, 2010) who have encouraged us to push the government to get involved in the effort, as well as more liberal voices urging that the foreign policy of the United States should do so.

    I think that that Vanasco put it well:

    We cannot sit back and expect our homegrown American extremists to make it better. After all, they might have been responsible – or at least instigated – the situation in Uganda, but Kenya’s horrors were incited by local Muslim clerics.

    Instead, we must do what we can. And we can do a lot.

    On the home front, we can use our political power to ensure that African gays and lesbians who are in danger in their home countries find political asylum here. And when they get here, we can help them find homes, jobs, education.

    We can pressure our leaders to make public statements against anti-gay violence (Barack Obama, of Kenyan heritage and beloved in Africa, would be a particularly effective spokesperson).

    And we can encourage our Congressional leaders to tie the billions of dollars of HIV/AIDS funding that we send to gay-friendly education efforts. If Republicans can add pro-life strings, why can’t we add pro-gay ones?

    Conservative writers on IGF have also condemned (at least implicitly) failure of government bodies (the UN, for example) to take action. See “More Iranian Horrors”, Stephen H. Miller, August 14, 2014, and “A Reason for Americans, West Europeans, Israelis (and a Few Others) to Be Thankful”, Stephen H. Miller, November 25, 2010.

    I don’t know whether or not our government’s limited efforts to encourage LGBT rights as human rights during the Obama administration have been a net gain or a net loss.

    And I am aware that next year’s election will have an impact on whether those efforts continue or not. Hillary Clinton, who played an active role in the Obama administration’s efforts while she was Secretary of State, will undoubtedly continue the efforts. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would probably (I’d say almost “certainly”, but neither has yet explicitly spoken on the issue) would not, and it would be ironic, to say the least, if they did while working to roll back LGBT rights in the United States.

    But my view is that our government should be involved in the effort, taking into account Realpolitik considerations.

  3. posted by Houndentenor on

    So what is your suggestion for what we SHOULD do? Nothing?

    But I will give you credit for acknowledging that the religious right has blood on their hands over this. Most of them, Rick Warren and company, deny it in the US but they were advocating for anti-gay laws and imprisonment of homosexuals in Africa and that is well documented. I thought lying was a sin but I guess it’s okay if it means good PR back home.

    • posted by Doug on

      “So what is your suggestion for what we SHOULD do? Nothing?”

      I suspect that is exactly what Stephen is suggesting, do nothing, and wait until civil rights come naturally through enlightenment of the majority.

      What a load of BS. It’s rather sickening how so many homocons are against LGBT rights.

      • posted by Jorge on

        I hope that means you homolibs will come around to supporting the invasion of Iraq.

        • posted by Doug on

          Not in your wildest dreams. And what the hell does the Iraq war have to do with this discussion?

          • posted by Jorge on

            Isolationism vs. imperialism.

            Only the isolationists tend to be ideological purists–against intervention for both (inter-)national security reasons and for civil rights reasons. Both the left and the right tend to apply situational ethics in deciding when the US should or should not be the world’s policeman.

            Every single argument that has been advanced against the War in Iraq applies to the non-military application of American power against a country with limited power and few allies.

            I predict you will tell me that I am wrong, that there is a fundamental difference between the use of military force and non-military force. Between the direct and massive collateral loss of life in war and these reported backlashes against American political power. On this, I will either disagree sharply or say you weigh the difference backwards on the grounds that all forms of power have the potential to have far-reaching consequences on the welfare and survival of a nation and people. And this will vindicate the fact that both left-imperialists and right-imperialists eschew ideological purity when it comes to foreign intervention.

          • posted by Houndentenor on

            You seem to think situational ethics are bad, but every situation is unique and requires its own analysis. Some situations call for intervention while others do not. Our lack of caution and more significantly a lack of thinking about the long-range consequences of our interventions has been a huge and ongoing problem. What if we had not backed so many dictators and terrorists during the cold war? We might be in a very different international situation today.

          • posted by Jorge on

            You seem to think situational ethics are bad…

            Actually I think ideological purity is bad. I just enjoy applying the most negative labels I can think of to ideas I’m sympathetic to. It gets people to think.

        • posted by Houndentenor on

          Why would I change my views on the Iraq War. I was right. The WMDs weren’t there, things are worse than before. And although this isn’t wasn’t my main reason at the time, things are far worse for gay people in Iraq now than they were in the 90s.

  4. posted by Tom Jefferson 3rd on

    The popularity of the United States government (or developed nations as a whole) in a given developing county, has often influenced how human rights issues in a given developing nation are talked about, or a part of the law.

    LGBT people have long been convenient scapegoats or punching bags for authoritarian governments seeking to hold onto power by scarring people about “those other people” or by appealing to traditional religious and cultural values.

  5. posted by Tom Jefferson 3rd on

    In Russia, Putin and company justify the homophobic laws by appealing to traditional religious and cultural values. A similar situation seems to happen in parts of Asia and Africa.

    Beyond stirring up hatred and fear, these policies are designed for the government to say. “People listen to our pleas, their teach kids about sodomy.”

  6. posted by Jorge on

    Anti-gay American evangelicals have blood on their hands here, but resistance to liberal America’s attempt to impose its values also is a significant factor.

    I cannot advocate taking such reasoning to its conclusion.

    I still believe we should adopt the following reasoning: anti-gay American evangelicals have blood on their hands, and inaction will leave blood on this country’s hands as well.

    Why is it that the bad guys get to interfere and the good guys don’t? I know President Obama is a poor diplomat. I know we still have relations with China. And worse, Saudi Arabia. Where there are human rights abuses, something has to be done. What should be done is the most that is possible, and that has to include something expressed through the highest levels of diplomatic relations. Africa is suspicious of many things connected to imperialism, but that does not mean it is always right.

    Tom: What’s SOGI?

    And we can encourage our Congressional leaders to tie the billions of dollars of HIV/AIDS funding that we send to gay-friendly education efforts. If Republicans can add pro-life strings, why can’t we add pro-gay ones?

    Now that I think is an abomination.

    Just because Rick Santorum and George W. Bush have their big fat fingerprints on it does not mean the Republicans “added” pro-life strings. Bush wrote that Bono told him that deal made the US the world’s biggest buyer of condoms. Oh, what-ever. I’m sure there’s a crafty (yeah, right) way to do that, too.

  7. posted by Sifrid on

    We should do this! No, we should do that! Back! Forth! Obnoxious homolibs! Craven homocons!

    I find it telling that none of the comments I have read* here even once suggested that we should ask the gay people who actually live in these countries what they think we should do. They, after all, are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of any action (or non-action) we take.

    *I’m having the issue where there are so many levels of indention within a string of comments that some are smashed up against the border of the browser pane and can’t be read.

    • posted by Jorge on


      Yes, that’s what happened with the AIDS funding bill. We modeled it based on local approaches.

      But even the United States government approaching gays (or even LGBT NGOs) based in repressive countries sounds to me a little imperialist. It is also rather dangerous. I think we should wait for lobbyists to come to us instead. They should be the ones presenting us with the information.

      If the Obama administration acts after listening to US-based LGBT lobbyists, I take that as a sign that the information given to him in total made action seem to be a fundamentally good idea.

    • posted by Tom Jefferson 3rd on

      I am not sure that anyone can safely say that the human rights situation for LGBT Iraqis has gotten better in Iraq, since the fall of the B’aathist dictatorship.

      Granted, it wasnt good to begin with, but the regime change handed power to people with little interest in the rights of women, let alone LGBT rights.

    • posted by Tom Jefferson 3rd on

      I am not sure that anyone can safely say that the human rights situation for LGBT Iraqis has gotten better in Iraq, since the fall of the B’aathist dictatorship.

      Granted, it wasnt good to begin with, but the regime change handed power to people with little interest in the rights of women, let alone LGBT rights.

  8. posted by Tom Jefferson 3rd on

    In some circumstances their are few great human rights-foreign policy options, no matter who is the President.

    In terms of LGBT rights, China has (since 1997) slowly improved the law, and allowed for public debate on gay marriage and for NGOs to operate.

    Saudi Arabia has been expressly rejected the idea of LGBT rights, limits public discourse to reinforce the orthodox-conservative views and only offers a modicum of discretionary protection for members of prominent families.

    In both situations, the U.S. foreign policy with China or Saudi Arabia ain’t gonna be substantially different. This is not to suggest that we do nothing.

  9. posted by Andrew Park on

    The factual basis of this article is the claim that the US has spent $700 million on LGBT issues globally. That figure is incorrect. The true figures is more like 7 million a year. $700 million is the figure for HIV funding for all vulnerable groups including children, women, people in rural areas, etc.
    The figure comes from an article in the New York times. Since then there have been a variety of responses from the State Department, as well as an analysis of the funding in a piece by me in the Huffington Post, attempting to correct this mistake.
    $700 million is a very large amount and, if true, would constitute a very aggressive level of funding for this field. 7 million is not. Keep in mind this includes all funding for the entire globe.
    Given that this is the primary fact in this analysis (the rest being subjective judgements of the effect of single actions in a very complex geopolitical situation), this narrative really doesn’t hold up.

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