President Barack Obama told Africans on Saturday that discriminating against gays was like treating people differently because of race, drawing criticism from anti-gay activists who said he was imposing his morality on the continent.
The comments in Kenya by Obama, whose father was Kenyan and who Africans claim as their son, exposed the divide on gay rights between Western states and religiously conservative Africa where many states ban homosexual relations.
"As an African American in the United States I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently," Obama told a news conference in Nairobi during his first trip as president to his father's homeland.
Standing next to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama said his message across Africa was the same: "When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they are doing to anybody but because they are different, that's the path whereby freedoms begin to erode."
Obama, who has shown increasing support for gay rights during his presidency, hailed last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriage in the United States.
Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, who attended talks with Obama, had said in May there was "no room" for gays in Kenya, where homosexual relations are outlawed.
“Right now there is a lot of visibility and talk of homosexuality. When that happens, there is a spike in violence,” Anthony Oluoch, executive director of the media and advocacy group Gay Kenya Trust, told The Christian Science Monitor. “Visibility is a double-edged sword.”
Anti-gay laws often have broad public approval in African nations where many hold conservative religious views and see homosexuality as immoral.
It's dangerous to generalize for an entire continent, but on this issue it seems that there is a common popular majority feeling, and it is disdain for homosexual rights. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found only 3 percent of Ghanaians and Senegalese, 4 percent of Ugandans, and 8 percent of Kenyans said their societies should accept homosexuality. In Nigeria, 98 percent said it should not accept homosexuality, the highest ratio in the world, the study found. (Outside influence may be a factor. As the Monitor recently reported, human rights groups in Africa have long pointed a finger at visitors from US evangelical groups who have advocated against homosexual behavior and rights in some African states.)
"He is connecting himself to Africa but he is offending the values of Africa," said Kidaha Vincent, who heads Kenya's fringe Republican Liberty Party.
In response to the same question, Kenyatta said the United States and Kenya shared many values but not in all areas, saying gay rights was a "non-issue" for Kenyans.
"There are some things that we must admit we don't share - our culture, our societies don't accept," Kenyatta said, drawing scattered applause after speaking.
Eric Gitari, who heads a Kenyan gay rights groups, praised Obama for tackling the matter on the basis of "the dignity of people by speaking about simple human to human interactions."
U.S. group Human Rights First also issued a statement praising Obama for addressing the issue as one of "equality under the law."
Some African rights groups had urged Obama to tread cautiously on the issue to avoid inflaming public opinion. South Africa is the only African nation to allow same-sex marriage.
Neighboring Uganda, which moved to toughen prison sentences against gays in 2014, faced stern Western criticism and a halt in some aid before a court struck down the law. U.S. Secretary State John Kerry had called the code "atrocious." (Writing by Edmund Blair)