ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - The U.S. Embassy here made history earlier this month by hosting a gay pride reception attended by about two dozen openly gay Ivorians. The event was groundbreaking, but reporters were barred, 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 U.S. administration's cautious promotion of gay rights in Africa, an issue that is likely to come up during President Obama's 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.
"I asked the ambassador whether Obama would discuss the issue when he goes to Senegal," said Claver Toure, who attended the 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."
Obama signed a December 2011 memorandum instructing federal agencies to promote the human rights of gay people overseas, and 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.
Thirty-eight African countries criminalize homosexuality, according to Amnesty International.