President Obama defended gay rights in Kenya Saturday, calling for "equal protection under the law" for LGBT citizens of the African country -- a position that Kenyan President Uruhu Kenyatta fired back against during their joint press conference.
"I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law. And that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation," Mr. Obama, standing next to President Kenyatta, said to reporters. "I'm unequivocal on this."
The president added that as an African American living in the United States he was "painfully aware" of what happens when people are institutionally discriminated against, citing the U.S. history of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and slavery.
"When you start treating people differently not because of any harm they're doing anybody but because they're different, that's the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen," Mr. Obama added. "And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread."
But President Kenyatta responded that gay rights is "really a non-issue" for the country.
"We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people," Kenyatta said, mentioning problems with infrastructure, education, and women's inclusion in economic development. "Maybe once -- like you have -- we overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones. But as of now, the fact remains that this issue is not really an issue that is in the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact."
Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto said earlier this month that same-sex couples should leave the country, where gay sex is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
President Obama, who is visiting Kenya for the first time since getting elected to the White House, acknowledged earlier that people's differing religious or cultural beliefs. But he argued that it was not a matter of changing those beliefs -- rather, "the issue is how does the state operate relative to people."
"If somebody is a law abiding citizen who is going about their business and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do, and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong," Mr. Obama said. "Full stop."
The two leaders also discussed cooperating on counterterrorism efforts in east Africa, where extremist groups like Somalia-based al-Shabaab have recently proliferated.
The U.S. leader noted that such groups can "do a lot of damage" when attacking "soft targets," like the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi in 2013. The president also warned against marginalizing minority communities while pursuing terrorists and cited the "hard experience" America has had with its own approach to counterterrorism.
Mr. Obama also warned against government corruption, an issue he called "the biggest impediment to Kenya growing."
The president arrived in Kenya Friday evening, attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and later dining with three dozen family members. He is scheduled to deliver a speech on Sunday to the Kenyan people before he leaves for Ethiopia.