Gay rights in focus as Obama visits Africa

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's trip to Africa this month may result in a stark juxtaposition between the growing power of the gay rights movement in the United States and the criminalization of homosexuality throughout the African continent.

Obama is scheduled to be in Africa in late June and early July -- when the Supreme Court is likely to issue rulings on a pair of gay marriage cases.

Homosexuality is considered a criminal offense in many African nations, including Senegal and Tanzania, which Obama will visit. South Africa, the third country on the president's itinerary, protects homosexuals and is the only African country to legalize gay marriage.

Gay rights activist Richard Socarides said Obama could use the rulings as a "teachable moment" if the justices move to expand rights for same-sex couples.

"It may provide a perfect opportunity for him to speak out about the principles we value in our democracy and how we would hope that others follow it," said Socarides, who worked for the Clinton administration.

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The White House wouldn't say what role gay rights would play in Obama's trip but noted that the administration "unequivocally advocates against violence and discrimination" against gays and lesbians around the world.

The cases before the Supreme Court challenge California's definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denies married same-sex couples a range of benefits available to married heterosexuals. Obama supports overturning both measures.

He has frequently called on countries to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. In 2011, he directed the State Department to "ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights" of gays, lesbians and transgender people.

According to the State Department's 2012 report on Tanzania, consensual gay sex is illegal and carries a prison sentence of 30 years to life. The report concluded that homosexuals face "societal discrimination that restricted their access to health care, housing and employment" and that there were no government efforts to combat such discrimination. Conditions are similar in Senegal, the State Department said.

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