ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — A young man wearing rainbow suspenders entered the heavily-guarded residence of the United States ambassador to Ivory Coast. So did a transgender woman in a ruffled, purple gown, as well as seven men wearing matching baby blue pants and neckties.
The U.S. embassy here made history earlier this month by hosting a gay pride reception attended by about two dozen openly gay Ivorians. Despite the groundbreaking nature of the event, reporters were barred from attending, and the only mention of it was a short blurb on the embassy website posted the following week.
The handling of the event encapsulates the Obama administration's cautious promotion of gay rights in Africa, an issue that is likely to come up during his visit this week to three African nations — South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania — the last two of which punish homosexuality with jail time. The U.S. has made it a priority to promote gay rights overseas, but officials pick and choose when they talk about it, often citing concerns about igniting a backlash that could endanger local activists.
At the reception, Ambassador Philip Carter thanked the guests for their courage in the face of persecution and vowed that the U.S. would continue to advocate on their behalf, according to three Ivorians invited to the event as well as two U.S. diplomats. During the event, the talk turned to how President Barack Obama — a widely admired figure across Africa — would promote gay rights when he arrives this week for his second visit to the continent since taking office.
"I asked the ambassador whether Obama would discuss the issue when he goes to Senegal," said Claver Toure, who attended the private reception and is executive director of the gay and lesbian group, Alternative Cote d'Ivoire. "It will be very important for him to talk about us with African leaders, and also in his speeches. It will give us strength to let us know that we are not alone."
By signing a December 2011 memorandum instructing federal agencies to promote the human rights of gay people overseas, Obama publicly inserted himself into Africa's bitter debate about whether homosexuals have legitimate rights. Since then American diplomats have forcefully pressed for gay rights behind closed doors, especially in countries that criminalize homosexuality, say experts and advocates. Officials have also expanded outreach to local organizations promoting gay and lesbian rights, improved monitoring of anti-gay abuses and established an emergency fund for activists facing violence or harassment.
But the public positioning has been discreet, with the U.S. government clearly wary of any backlash that could put local activists at risk.
"Given that African societies tend to be very conservative, it's a difficult issue," Carter, the U.S. ambassador in Ivory Coast, told The Associated Press. "The question for us is, how do we advocate effectively and advance the human rights agenda for the LGBT community, or any other community that is in a difficult position? And sometimes the headlong assault isn't the way to do it."
A total of 38 African countries criminalize homosexuality, according to Amnesty International. In four of those — Mauritania, northern Nigeria, southern Somalia and Sudan — the punishment is death. These laws appear to have broad support. A June 4 Pew Research Center survey found at least nine of 10 respondents in Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
Obama's decision to champion a hugely unpopular cause — both with the December 2011 memorandum and his public endorsement of gay marriage last year — has prompted soul-searching among some of his African fans.
"When Obama is talking about democracy, it means that we all have the same right —the right to do what we want," Naty Noel, a communications consultant in Abidjan. "So maybe we can accept them."
But while some campaigners say Obama is uniquely positioned to change minds on gay rights in Africa, there is concern that strong public statements from the president would merely be giving ammunition to a hostile opposition that has long dismissed the push for gay rights as an example of Western powers imposing their values on Africa.
"That would actually be playing into the hands of the opponents if he's seen as an advocate for something they want to believe is foreign, which of course it's not," said Chloe Schwenke, a former Obama appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Diadji Diouf is all too familiar with arguments that homosexuality has no place in Africa.
The 32-year-old was rounded up during a meeting of HIV activists in 2008 and charged with violating a law prohibiting any "improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex." He received an eight-year sentence but was released after four months following an international outcry.
Despite the risk that a full-throated endorsement of gay rights by Obama during his visit could trigger a strong negative reaction, Diouf said he still wants the president to take up the controversial issue.
"We already have arrests. We already have attacks," he said. "If he doesn't talk about it, we'll be disappointed."