Despite dire warnings that he faced expulsion from Kenya’s Parliament if he raised the subject of gay rights, President Barack Obama replied to a reporter’s question on the subject with a very personal response.
“As an African-American in the United States I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently under the law,” Obama said.
“When you start treating people differently – because they’re different – that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen,” said Obama, adding that treating people differently “because of who they love is wrong, full stop.”
“I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this,” said Obama, who previously spoke in support of gay rights during a visit to Senegal in 2013.
On Saturday, President Uhuru Kenyatta repeated his argument that for Kenyans, gay rights is “really a non-issue”. He said it was an area of disagreement for Kenya and the US.
“There are some things we don’t share, that our society, our culture, don’t accept,” the Kenyan president said.
In Kenya, gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison and gay people in the country regularly talk about violent harassment.
In his speech at the stadium, the president also took a stand on women’s rights, condemning female genital circumcision and other “bad traditions” including domestic violence and lack of job opportunities.
“Every country and every culture has traditions that are unique and help make that country what it is,” he said, “but just because something is part of your past doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t mean it defines your future.” He cited the recent debate in America over the Confederate flag.
“Around the world there is a tradition of oppressing women and treating them differently and not giving them the same opportunities, and husbands beating their wives, and children not being sent to school. Those are traditions. Treating women and girls as second-class citizens. Those are bad traditions. They need to change.”
His comments brought an outpouring of applause from the 4,500 Kenyans who filled a sports arena in Nairobi.
He reminded the young people in the crowd of his grandfather’s service as a cook for the British during the colonial era. “A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did and serve a foreign master,” he said. “You don’t need to do what my father did and leave your home to get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now.”
On the way to Kenyatta airport, thousands of people lined the route in the hope of glimpsing the presidential convoy. As he boarded Air Force One, Obama turned to the crowd with a wide smile and an extended farewell wave.