Same-sex unions in Africa

Last week, I wrote about what appeared to be a substantial policy shift in Malawi, with the new president reported to favor a reversal of anti-gay legislation.  Malawi expert Kim Dionne highlights that this appears not to be the case. This morning, Kim wrote to me to shed more light on what’s going on:

The story is changing daily… just this morning (Malawi time) her Attorney General/Minister of Justice (Ralph Kasambara) has said that two women reported to have had an engagement ceremony will not be prosecuted since the laws pertaining to alleged same-sex acts are “under review.” There’s a big uproar among the public in Malawi, with some going so far to say they’d have demonstrations if the law is repealed. All I can say at this point is this issue is an interesting one to watch in Malawi.

How does the situation look elsewhere? As I’ve written about before, mostly pretty grim. But it is worth reflecting upon some of the different ways in which same sex unions have been addressed in other countries, sometimes even in environments that are generally hostile to homosexuals.

For example, in Kenya, a court case from a few years back shed some light on a Kikuyu practice of women marrying other women — generally in cases in which a married woman in unable to have children. The court case involved a young man trying to evict his stepmother’s wife from a plot of land she inherited from the wife.

And the Nation reports that the Kenya National Human Rights Commission is recommending the decriminalization of homosexuality, prostitution and same sex marriages. The same article goes on to point out that same-sex marriage is common among several ethnic groups including Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, and Nandi communities under common law — while stipulating that such marriages “are not sexual.” Of course, that begs the question of whether we are talking about apples and oranges here… but it does suggest a comfort level with a committed legal relationship between two adults of the same sex.

Here in the U.S., a recent poll shows that more Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it. I’m not exactly expecting a quick sea-change across Africa, but given increasingly high levels of international media penetration, African news outlets and blogs are sparking more discussion and debate on this social issue. Will be interesting to observe the different ways in which this plays out…

Human rights for gays at home and abroad

Yesterday morning, I had started to write about the hypocrisy of North Carolina adopting an anti-gay marriage law, while the U.S. was developing a policy to deny foreign aid to countries that discriminate against gays.  I had been primed by watching Jon Stewart the night before, as he appropriately mocked the President’s press secretary for trying to finesse the implications of VP Joe Biden’s public expression of support for gay marriage. When reporters asked the press secretary to clarify Obama’s views on the issue, he tried and failed to convincingly articulate the contradictory claims that the President’s view “hadn’t changed,” and yet was “evolving.”

But then yesterday afternoon, Obama came out (excuse the pun) and made clear his support for the idea of gay marriage.

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

This is a big moment for the United States. The president’s words are not law, but they do imply policy and at least policy goals. Those words could come to haunt him in the election, but I am guessing not. Mitt Romney responded not so much by forcefully condemning the idea of gay marriage — he pointed out that this was his view, but it was a difficult issue — but by emphasizing his consistency over Obama’s lack thereof. It’s hard not to sense that the country has reached a watershed on sexual orientation.

Nonetheless, those foreign governments, especially in Africa, which find themselves under pressure to adopt a more tolerant and inclusive approach to citizens irrespective of sexual orientation may still balk at the varied realization of such ideals within the U.S. As shown below, American states vary widely, with distinctly regional approaches, reminiscent of other civil rights issues from years’ past. Of course, one implication might be that the federal government could withhold funding to the Southeast, especially to states such as Mississippi, which afford no protections for anti-gay discrimination… but that’s not too likely! At the very least, the Obama administration can take the moral high ground now that POTUS has finally spoken without equivocation.

(Graphic from the Guardian UK.)

Gay rights in the U.S. by region