Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Political Notebook: Local LGBTs affect
U.S. foreign policy


Former Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

This afternoon LGBT people in San Francisco and several other American cities will hold rallies to oppose a bill pending before the legislature in Uganda that would allow for executing people engaged in certain homosexual acts.

The action is timed to coincide with Human Rights Day, marked each December 10, and is the latest vigil or protest local LGBT leaders have held this year to bring attention to international LGBT issues. The events often fail to attract large crowds and pale to the mass mobilizations seen after last year's passage of Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.

Yet the rallies and protests do not go unnoticed, argue organizers and LGBT human rights leaders. For one, they alert State Department officials to global incidents that they may otherwise ignore.

"Local action lets officials in Washington, D.C. know these issues matter," said former openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest, the founder of the Council for Global Equality.

Guest took part on a panel that examined global LGBT human rights issues during the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, which took place in San Francisco last week. Appointed to the diplomatic post during the Bush administration, Guest publicly criticized the U.S. government's anti-gay policies toward its diplomats when he left the State Department in 2007.

An adviser to President Barack Obama 's campaign last year, Guest said he has been impressed so far by both Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speaking out on LGBT rights on the world stage. Last week Clinton used a speech timed to World AIDS Day to declare that the U.S. government will "stand against any efforts" to discriminate against LGBT people. Her remark was widely read as a rebuke to the Ugandan bill, which is reportedly being protested by American officials behind the scenes.

"We have never had a secretary of state or president speak about gay rights internationally. I don't think I ever expected to hear that," said Guest. He later said that U.S. embassies "are getting involved in LGBT issues in ways we've never seen before."

Apart from reaching political leaders, the local events are also designed to show support for LGBT people in those countries targeted. Local gay blogger Michael Petrelis, who has been organizing San Francisco rallies on international LGBT causes since 2005, said he often hears from counterparts in Africa and the Middle East about the events.

"I just blogged about some of the things related to Uganda a few weeks ago and got a short note from gay activists from Uganda saying thank you for blogging about their plight. Half of the battle with these actions to show solidarity with the gays in a given country," said Petrelis, who was also contacted by an LGBT rights group in South Africa about today's rally. "We do these actions in San Francisco and we don't know if they have an impact on a government."

But he does know they draw media attention. After local television reporters covered a vigil for the deaths of gay Iranians, Arab cable news channels picked it up and then rebroadcast it to viewers globally, "so there is your impact," said Petrelis.

Views mixed on America's moral authority

When it comes to whether America has the moral authority to lecture other countries about LGBT rights, the panelists were decidedly mixed. Klaus Wowereit, the openly gay mayor of Berlin, Germany, po

inted to the battle over same-sex marriage as one reason why America's role has been diminished when it comes to international human rights issues.

"Now is not the time you can say America is a leader. It can be a leader but you have to change the laws in your country," said Wowereit, who added that the U.S. is still viewed as "the country of freedom and democracy" but when it comes to LGBT rights "the truth is not this time."

Wowereit faulted his own country, as well, when it comes to LGBT rights, noting that LGBT Germans continue to face "lots of discrimination" and that "it is a daily fight."

Philippa Drew, an out lesbian who used to work for the United Kingdom's Civil Service, complimented LGBT Americans on their organizing around national concerns. But she urged the country's gay community not to be so insular.

"Please come out of that national closet. Please, we need you to come join the fight for protection of LGBT rights worldwide," said Drew. "When America speaks the rest of the world listens. On this issue your leadership is critical."

Petrelis, who was not on the panel but heard a portion of its discussion, said he would like to see a more muscular stance on the part of the State Department when it comes to LGBT concerns. In regard to Uganda, he questioned why U.S. officials have not been more forceful in threatening to withhold or end American aid to the country should the legislation pass.

"I am not saying we should be cutting off that aid because it would mean people with AIDS won't get their drugs in Uganda. As a tactic, though, why not raise the possibility of curtailing U.S. aid to Uganda over this anti-homosexual bill?" asked Petrelis.

Out lesbian Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter while in town for the conference, agreed that American officials should leverage the loss of funding in their talks with Ugandan officials. Baldwin urged as much in a letter she and a number of Congress members sent to Clinton.

"I don't want to wait for them to pass the bill to then take the funds away," said Baldwin. "At the same time I am not going to tell Secretary Clinton how to exercise U.S. diplomacy. But I am heartened the letter got immediate attention."

The rally this afternoon in San Francisco begins at noon before the Uganda Pillar in United Nations Plaza on Market Street between 7th and 8th streets.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reports on why a gay dad in the San Diego area ended his bid for Congress.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail

Follow The Bay Area Reporter
facebook logo
facebook logo
Newsletter logo
Newsletter logo
ISSUU logo