Obama Gives Hope for Gay African Community

South Africa might be progressive and pretty in pink, offering a great gay tourist destination and gay marriage for everyone, but it’s only the rainbow tip in the largely homophobic African subcontinent.

Amnesty International released a report this week titled “Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of Same-Sex Conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa”  which detailed facts and human rights abuses against LGBT individuals within the sovereign countries.

Of its various findings, it notes that 38 countries consider homosexuality illegal. Four of them—Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria, and southern Somalia—offer the death penalty for those found guilty of “homosexuality,” and five more—Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi, Liberia, and Nigeria—have all attempted to further criminalize homosexuality within their countries. Open discrimination within these countries has resulted in difficulty obtaining or outright refusal of medical treatment, and such things as “corrective” rape occur to try to “cure” lesbians and queer women into becoming heterosexual. Other sexual violence, like forced anal exams, and targeted killings happen throughout the region, making the situation for LGBT individuals rather dire and extreme.

For all of these reasons, and because of his vocal support of the LGBT community, President Obama is expected to make a statement of some kind against these practices while on his African tour later this week and next. The primary reasons for the trip are to promote democracy and U.S. businesses (competing with China for markets), and to discuss subjects of development with several African leaders. He will be visiting Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania during his unusually long (for a U.S. president) international tour, and be back in the U.S. for Independence Day.

It seems almost a given that the president will make some kind of comment. In foreign affairs, back in 2011 he asked individuals in the State Department “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of” gays, lesbians and transgender people. His second inaugural address indicated a full-fledged support for gay marriage. And just last week he called on Congress to draft a bill outlawing workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals.

The situation is quite sensitive: President Obama seems to be in a position to make a political statement that would affect American relations in the Sub-Saharan region, and he will have to choose the timing and the nature of his comments carefully if he does make them. Africa is a dynamic continent, and we could see a changing landscape, albeit slowly, with strong positive LGBT sentiments from its leaders.

To end on a slightly more positive note, Amnesty’s report also mentions a few uplifting points in its report. Mentioned before, South Africa allows same-sex marriage and joint adoption, and Cape Verde, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Seychelles have all decriminalized homosexuality. Several countries also have a history of homosexual marriages and art, which while current leaders tend to see as incorrect and “un-African,” some are starting to see these things in a more accepting light.

Military Same-Sex Couples Just Playing House

One year after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” homosexuals in the military have undergone a smooth transition. However, the Armed Forces still does not admit Transgenders nor award same-sex couples the same benefits as heterosexual couples. Since DOMA has been the law of the land, with marriage defined as a union between man and woman, since 1996, the federal government does not recognize same-sex couples as legally married. Consequently, they are not entitled to federal benefits. They might as well be “playing house.”

Why the Military Excludes Benefits for Same-Sex Couples

Given the military’s’ Zero Tolerance’  for discrimination based on sex orientation, it’s ironic that DOMA forces the military to engage in the very discrimination that it prohibits its service members from engaging in ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy.

Not just the Defense of Marriage Act is to blame, but also the failure of the Department of Defense to update its regulations and create a new “qualifying relationship” status for same-sex couples. The military treats heterosexual military families differently from gay and lesbian military families. Same-sex couples are treated as “second class” and denied access to the support systems and benefits in place to help deal with the military lifestyle.

Some Discriminatory DOD Regulations For Same Sex Couples

  • Joint Duty Assignments. Married same-sex military couples are ineligible for co-location for duty assignments.
  •  Free Legal Services.  Not entitled; have to seek out private attorneys.
  • Military Family Housing. Gay and Lesbian members with children qualify, but legally married ss couples without children aren’t eligible.
  • Shopping at Commissaries, PX, BX & NEX: Same-sex spouses, parents-in-law, step-children are excluded as “dependents.”
  • Family Programs.  Each installation commander determines the extent to which ss spouses and partners have access to deployment support, marriage, and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.
  • Spousal Privilege in Courts Martial.  Ss spouses can be forced to testify against their loved ones and disclose confidential information shared during the marriage relationship.
  •  Relocation & Overseas “Command-Sponsored” Status.  Relocation support and funding is not available to ss partners.
  • Basic Allowance for Housing at “with dependent rate.” Excludes ss spouses of service members, parents-in-law, and step-children from ss marriage.
  • Medical & Dental Insurance and TRICARE.  Excludes a service member’s same-sex spouse, step-children, and parents-in-law.
  • Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Programs. Same-sex spouse cannot receive any more guest privileges than a girlfriend or boyfriend of a straight service member.
  • Relocation & Transportation. Benefits are not available to legally married ss spouses, but children of gay or lesbian service members can receive travel and transportation allowances.
  • Family Separation Allowance.  Benefits exclude ss spouses.
  • Surviving Spouse Benefits. Don’t receive annuities based on retired or retainer pay.
  • Family and Advocacy & Spouse Abuse Services. An abused ss spouse will not receive military-sponsored protection and emergency shelter or ongoing financial support.

5 Ways DOMA Hurts Gay Military Families – From Freedom to Marry 

Spouses Are Kept in the Dark.  If a service member is killed, wounded, or missing in action, there is no requirement to notify his or her spouse.

No Access To Health Care.  A service member’s spouse and his or her children are denied health and dental insurance coverage under the service member’s plan.

Physical Separation.  A service member and his or her spouse can be forced to live in separate housing.

No Death Benefits.  If a soldier is killed on active duty, a spouse is denied key benefits.

No Support.  If a service member is given a new assignment, there is no structure in place to keep the family together.

Lawsuits Around the Country

The Defense of Marriage Act is being challenged in a number of court cases, including one by military service members filed in Massachusetts last October. Those service members, as  others, were suing over a wide range of benefits that married heterosexual couples receive.

Obama, Holder, and The Courts

The Obama administration has said it will not defend the law in court. It concluded that legislation banning same-sex couples from receiving military and veterans benefits violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment and will not longer defend the statute in court.

Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders recently: “Neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Veterans Affairs identified any justifications for that distinction that would warrant treating these provisions differently from Section 3 of DOMA.”

Holder said that Congress would be provided a “full and fair opportunity” to defend the statutes in the McLaughlin v. Panetta case if they wished to do so. He also stated that DOJ would no longer defend the provisions in Title 38 which prevent same-sex couples who are legally married from obtaining benefits for medical and dental, basic housing allowances, travel and transportation allowances, family separation benefits, military identification cards, visitation rights in military hospitals, survivor benefits, and the right to be buried together in military cemetaries.

Titles 10 and 32 of the U.S. Code also define a spouse as someone of the opposite sex. They were not mentioned in Holder’s letter.