DAKAR — During President Obama’s visit to Dakar, he and Senegalese President Macky Sall were asked about Senegal's treatment of homosexuals. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two rulings this week that expanded the rights of gays in the United States to get married. President Obama said his message for Africa is that everyone should be treated equally by the law, while President Sall said Senegal is "not ready" to de-criminalize homosexuality.
Front-page headlines in Senegal's Friday morning papers said it all.
One read, "Macky Resists Light Pressure from Obama and clashes with the USA," and another: "Obama Makes the Case For Gays, Macky Says No!"
In Dakar, many Senegalese said they agree with their president.
"Homosexuality is not part of our culture and we are not ready to accept it." Mareme Diop said. "Maybe the West accepts it, but we think it is wrong."
Many invoked religion. "As Muslims, we cannot accept homosexuality." Moussa Gueye said, "this is a secular country, but it is also 95 percent Muslim."
The two leaders responded to questions on gay rights at Thursday's news conference. Debate over that topic has largely eclipsed other aspects of President Obama's 36-hour visit to the small West African nation.
President Obama said everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs but discrimination is not acceptable. "Regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you - the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law - people should be treated equally. And that's a principle that I think applies universally," he stated.
The Obama administration's support for gay rights has been a delicate subject in Africa, where Amnesty International says homosexuality is illegal in 38 countries.
In Senegal, homosexual acts are punishable by up to five years in prison.
President Sall said the question of changing that law is a "societal issue," and something that Senegal is "not ready" to do. He said homosexuals are not being discriminated against in Senegal.
Gay-rights organizations in Senegal say that is not true.
Activist Seydou Djamil Ba said he has lost his two previous apartments. A mob attacked and set fire to the first one, and his landlord recently kicked him out of the second one for being gay.
He said no one wants to talk about homosexuality - not at the police stations, not at the courts and even not with some lawyers. He said, "You can't bring your problems to the law," and that "no one wants to defend you if it has to do with homosexuality."
President Sall said Thursday there is serious debate on the issue in the Cabinet and the National Assembly, but Senegalese say they don't expect to see the law changed any time soon.
"We have customs in our country that make legalizing homosexuality impossible, and President Sall has a lot to lose if he said anything otherwise." Idrissa Ba said. "Our realities are different from those in the United States."