DAKAR, Senegal -- Laying bare a clash of cultures, President Barack Obama yesterday 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 some 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 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 United States, 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. Many Africans have expressed disappointment over Obama's lack of direct engagement with affairs on their continent -- particularly given that his father was Kenyan and he has many relatives living in Africa -- yet he was still enthusiastically welcomed.
At Goree Island, the former slave trading post Obama visited later Thursday, residents waited under a scorching sun for hours to catch a glimpse of the president. They broke into jubilant cheers as Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walked over to shake hands.
The Obamas were given a tour of the salmon-colored House of Slaves where Africans were held before being sold into slavery. The president then peered out into the vast Atlantic through the Door of No Return, where shackled men, women and children left Africa, inching across a plank to the hull of a waiting ship.