Letters from TZ

What does an American campaign issue have to do with us?

Last week, religious leaders and activists in Dar es Salaam responded to Barrack Obama’s endorsement of same sex marriage by urging the government to uphold Tanzanian norms, values and traditions. They called gay unions a “curse that Tanzania should avoid embracing at all costs” and a “product of sin,” urging the government to “fight gay marriage” because some in Tanzania are already practicing it. Speaking on behalf of the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), executive director Dr Helen Kijo-Bisimba said that the Centre does not support same sex marriage. “We need to raise our voice and show the whole world why the practice is unacceptable in our country. Everything has a context and it’s not right to think that everything that is allowed in West should also be allowed here.”

I’m not too sure that we need to raise our voice and show the whole world anything about an issue that has everything to do with the American election and nothing to do with us. David Cameron’s recent attempt to tie foreign aid to gay rights in Africa was a different matter altogether. What he wanted – or said he wanted – was to exchange cash for gay rights. Obama on the other hand, wants to pip the Republicans to the post come November. It is unlikely that he was thinking about Tanzania’s gay rights record when he came out swinging for the other team. He was – in all probability – thinking about his own election.

According to a poll commissioned by the New York Times and CBS News, most Americans suspect that the president was motivated by politics, not policy, when he declared his support for same sex marriage. Sixty-seven per cent of those surveyed since the announcement said they thought that Mr Obama had made it “mostly for political reasons.”

Writing for the Huffington Post, American political reporter Sam Stein says that the president’s statements constitute “an act of political bravery.” He goes on to say that there may be drawbacks to such a strong expression of support. “While recent polls show that popular support for gay marriage equality is gaining widespread acceptance, some pivotal swing states remain largely opposed to the concept. And one of them, North Carolina, remains a major target for the president’s re-election campaign,” he writes. North Carolina has just passed an amendment that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. “The question is, is there a risk?” Stein writes, quoting a prominent Democratic Party official who asked to remain anonymous. He surmises that before Obama came out in support of same sex marriage, the question was hypothetical but now, it is a critical component of the 2012 election.

By coming out in support of same sex marriage, Obama played a wild card, the full impact of which has yet to be established. Not every American believes that gays and lesbians should be ‘allowed’ to marry. Some of them also hold the view that traditional American norms and values should be protected. Republican lawmakers in Colorado have also just rejected a proposal to provide gay couples rights similar to marriage. Dozens of people who support traditional marriage celebrated the rejection and applauded the lawmakers for defeating the heavily debated civil union legislation.

Colorado legislator and House Speaker Frank McNulty issued a rallying call to the opponents of same sex unions who had gathered to wait for the decision on the proposal. “It does not end here today. Go back to your communities, go back to your neighborhoods, go back to your churches and let them know that the fight continues, that we’re engaged in this fight and that we will continue it today, through the next legislative session and every time that marriage is attacked.” This being an election year, issues around gay rights in the US are sharply divided along party lines. The Democrats (usually liberal) have shown their support for same sex unions while the Republicans (usually conservative) have withheld it. Religious groupings usually adopt the Republican stance. But in a sharp contrast to the situation here in Tanzania, human rights activists in the US are more likely to take a liberal ‘Democratic’ approach.

According to an article in the New York Times by Peter Baker and Dalia Sussman, in more than 30 states American voters have passed measures banning same sex unions. Only 4 in 10 Americans support it, the article claims. Also, there is more support for same sex civil unions than there is for same sex marriage. Fifty-one per cent of Americans are opposed to same sex marriage believing that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

Clearly, it’s not so cut and dried in the ‘West’ either. The American public is deeply divided and conflicted on the issue. But no matter what they feel as citizens, their president’s views on the matter have nothing to do with the gay and lesbian citizens of Tanzania. At least not yet. A sneeze in the West needn’t cause a cold in Africa. We have bigger problems to contend with, many of which our religious leaders and activists can actually solve. This gay issue is not one of them.