America’s money and public diplomacy have opened conversations and opportunities in societies where the subject was taboo just a few years ago. But they have also made gay men and lesbians more visible — and more vulnerable to harassment and violence, people on both sides of the gay rights issue contend. The American campaign has stirred misgivings among many African activists, who say they must rely on the West’s support despite often disagreeing with its strategies.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, the final passage of the 2014 law against homosexuality — which makes same-sex relationships punishable by 14 years in prison and makes it a crime to organize or participate in any type of gay meeting — is widely regarded by both supporters and opponents of gay rights as a reaction to American pressure on Nigeria and other African nations to embrace gay rights.
“The Nigerian law was blowback,” said Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and the senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which supports gay rights on the continent. “You now have situations of gay men being molested on the streets or taunted. That was all avoidable.”
“I’ve said to U.S. diplomats privately as well — the risk is causing more harm than good,” Mr. Odinkalu added. “You don’t want an infusion of good will to actually do harm to the community that you think you’re protecting.”
Anti-gay sentiments are widespread across Africa. Same-sex relations remain illegal in most nations, the legacy of colonial laws that had been largely forgotten until the West’s push to repeal them in recent years.
Fierce opposition has come from African governments and private organizations, which accuse the United States of cultural imperialism. Pressing gay rights on an unwilling continent, they say, is the latest attempt by Western nations to impose their values on Africa.