After years of lagging behind several European countries in official support for gay rights, the United States under President Barack Obama is advancing to the forefront internationally in both domestic and foreign policies.
New policies in Washington, often instituted by executive orders that bypass conservative hurdles in the US Congress, reflect the rapid changes occurring in American society. Legislation and judicial action have recognized same-sex marriage in state after state or overturned bars on this right to full legal partnership, and the federal government has passed measures governing personal laws and such issues as equal benefits. Among the administration’s most recent domestic moves, an executive order soon to go into effect will prohibit federal contractors in the US from discriminating against employees because of gender identity of any kind.
In a long, comprehensive address at a gay pride event held at the State Department on June 19, Secretary of State John Kerry detailed the policies and actions worldwide of the US government and its diplomatic corps, and named nations where discrimination exists and may be getting worse.
The US had just announced sanctions against Uganda, along with several northern European nations, after the passage of a law criminalizing homosexuality. Among the measures were cuts to aid programs, cancellation of joint aviation exercises and a US visa ban on some Ugandan government officials. Questions now arise over the recent election in the United Nations of Uganda’s foreign minister, Sam Kutesa, as the next General Assembly president, a candidacy backed by the African Union. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has spoken out against discrimination based on gender, has no control over the Assembly process or choices, and Kutesa may not be barred by the US because of agreements with the UN. He starts the presidency on Sept. 16.
“So now we have come a long way at home, but everybody here knows there’s a cloud hanging over the journey right now,” Kerry told an audience assembled by an organization known as GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, a name somewhat too narrow to reflect more gender choices).
“We have a long, long way to go in the world,” Kerry said. “From Uganda to Russia to Iran, LGBT communities face discriminatory laws and practices that attack dignity, undermine safety and violate human rights. And we each have a responsibility to push back against a global trend of rising violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.” He described the situation as “metastasizing.”
Nigeria is also among those countries with new anti-homosexual laws, causing international health organizations concern about how vital anti-HIV and AIDS programs can be carried out in a threatening atmosphere for gays. Even India, a large democracy that insists it has shared values with the US, recently reimposed a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality.
Kerry ran though a list of many new changes in US foreign policy and in the diplomatic world. Six openly gay US ambassadors have been named, and one of them awaiting confirmation would be the first in Asia. Countries where they serve have been told by Washington that governments must treat gay partners as any other spouses. American embassies support gay advocacy and, through the Global Equality Fund, the State Department provides emergency help in 25 countries to protect gay people whose human rights are violated.
Still, American diplomats say that many countries make being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender as reason for discrimination. After his talk, Kerry was confronted by a foreign-service officer who read him this comment from an American diplomat abroad:
“Mr. Secretary. We’ve seen so much progress here at home, but I have to tell you that for us in GLIFAA, in many ways we’re feeling more squeezed. All of us want to succeed, but the list of countries where we can serve is growing shorter and shorter. Countries that used to quietly give visas to our family members or our friends, are now being asked for visas for our spouses, and that is causing a knee-jerk reaction in many countries. I personally counted all the jobs on my bid list, and had to cross out 68 percent of them just because I’m gay and that country will not give a visa to my partner.”
The US Congress is not without some strong supporters of universal gay, lesbian and, increasingly, transgender rights. On June 13, Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill, the International Human Rights Defense Act, which underscores American efforts to prevent and respond to discrimination and violence against LGBT people anywhere and declares that this should be foreign policy priority. Among other provisions, the Markey bill seeks to create a “special envoy for the human rights of LGBT peoples.” It asks the State Department to continue to require missions abroad to include gay rights in annual human-rights reports.
The Markey bill was widely welcomed by rights advocates. Freedom House, which more often than not has concentrated on civil rights, justice and democratic political development, hailed the move. “LGBT people and activists face some of the gravest and most horrific human rights abuses perpetrated by governments and individuals alike,” a Freedom House statement said. “It is vital that the United States continue to support these communities through foreign assistance and diplomacy, and this legislation would give the State Department and USAID additional tools to do so.”