DAKAR, Senegal – Laying bare a clash of cultures, President Barack Obama on Thursday urged African leaders to extend equal rights to gays and lesbians but was bluntly rebuked by Senegal’s president, who said his country “still isn’t ready” to decriminalize homosexuality.
Obama opened his weeklong trip to Africa one day after the U.S. Supreme Court expanded federal benefits for married gay couples. In his first in-person comments on the ruling, Obama said the court’s decision marked a “proud day for America.” He pressed for similar recognition for gays in Africa, wading into a sensitive area in a region where dozens of countries outlaw homosexuality and a few punish violations with death.
“When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” Obama said during a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall at the grand presidential palace in Dakar.
But Sall gave no ground. Senegal is “very tolerant,” he assured Obama, but is “still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.” Sall said countries make decisions on complex issues in their own time, noting that Senegal has outlawed capital punishment while other countries have not – a pointed jab at the U.S., where the death penalty is legal in many states.
Obama’s trip, which also includes stops in South Africa and Tanzania, marks the most extensive visit to Africa by the first black U.S. president since he took office.
Thousands of people gathered on the roadways near the presidential palace as Obama’s motorcade sped through the coastal city, many in the crowds wearing white to symbolize peace. Some waved homemade signs welcoming Obama while those gathered near the palace entrance sang and played drums, the rhythmic beats audible from inside the gates.
At Goree Island, the former slave trading post Obama visited later Thursday, local residents waited under scorching sun for hours to catch a glimpse of the president. They sang a song about his return to his ancestral homeland and broke into jubilant cheers as he and first lady Michelle Obama walked over to shake hands.