LGBTs have a voice in foreign affairs

  • by Michael Guest
  • Wednesday February 29, 2012
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When it comes to the rights of LGBT people abroad, you don't have to look back very far to see the future.

David Bahati is at it again, reintroducing in Uganda's parliament legislation that, in extreme cases, would put gay people to death for having same-sex relationships. Bahati's unamended hate bill already has sailed through a first reading, and although it now has been sent back to committee for further review, volatility in Uganda's politics underscore that it would be a mistake to assume the bill will remain bottled up.

Uganda is hardly the only place where anti-gay intolerance and discrimination is on the march. Only last week, Cameroon's police forces arrested another 10 women, merely on the suspicion that they are lesbians. A newly introduced bill in Liberia would make homosexuality a felony, with prison sentences of up to 10 years. Nigeria's Senate passed a bill late last year to penalize more severely not only gay relationships, but human rights defenders who work on behalf of gay rights; its lower house appears poised to bring this legislation into law. And in St. Petersburg, Russia, a bill that would sharply circumscribe the freedom of expression for LGBT people has sailed through its third hearing.

Many LGBT rights supporters, in the U.S. and elsewhere, blame homophobic climates abroad on Christian proselytizers such as Scott Lively and Paul Cameron. Certainly the Pharisaical teachings and dictates of some Christian activists have helped foster anti-LGBT political climates in many areas, including Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. As a Christian, my own perspective is that ultimately God will judge them for the hatred they've introduced into this world. How they are financed, and how they obtain entree to political circles overseas, is nonetheless worth exploring – and thankfully, people like Jeff Sharlet and Kapya Kaoma are doing so with conviction and courage.

But the collision of personal faith and public policy isn't, of course, just a foreign occurrence. In our own country, the back-to-the-50s debates we've been hearing about contraception, vaginal probes, and forced ultrasounds seem a deep dive into an utterly unrecognizable parallel universe. Planned Parenthood is under renewed attack, as is the right of gay couples to provide families and homes to abandoned children. And it only takes a small sampling of sound bites from the Republican presidential debates to affirm that recent gains in fairness for the American LGBT community are as precarious as they are overdue.

The real problem, here as in Uganda, is political leaders who fail to recognize or stand for fairness and equality in civil life – values at the core of true democratic leadership.   Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke directly to this point in a landmark December 6 speech on international LGBT rights. In her remarks in Geneva, she said: "Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. It also means ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals under your laws. ..."

If distinguishing between personal faith and public policy has been hard in this country, it should come as no surprise that newer democracies often have trouble understanding that point. But our stumbles at home can't be allowed to excuse us from confronting the anti-LGBT hatred that�s now spewing forth abroad.

The Obama administration clearly understands this point. President Barack Obama recently directed federal foreign affairs agencies to ensure that all USG programs overseas support the fair and equal treatment of LGBT people. He has spoken directly, and publicly, to the problems inherent in Bahati�s Uganda bill. LGBT rights are now covered, with greater consistency and nuance, in our annual human rights reports to the Hill. (Watch for the 2011 version early next month.)

Our ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has forcefully stood for LGBT rights abroad in UN debates. In public and in private, other U.S. ambassadors have addressed homophobia and transphobia in the context of our human rights policies. And Clinton's inspirational speech has brought the issue of LGBT human and civil rights squarely into the international diplomatic arena.

The administration, in short, is doing its part to temper the international debate over LGBT rights, and more steps are on the horizon. But we have a role to play, too. 

It�s up to us to call out the politicians, at home and abroad, who fail to understand that they are charged with ensuring equality under the law. It's up to us to educate those outside of our "gay bubbles" as to why they should care when LGBT rights are under attack. We have to insist that the corporations that use our talent, and whose products we buy, anchor fair anti-discrimination policies in every workplace abroad, and train their foreign workers to respect those policies in the workplace. And however we can, we need to offer our support to LGBT organizations and human rights defenders abroad, who work against such adversity.

The year 2012 can be a pivotal one in whether LGBT rights are advanced or eroded, at home and abroad. Our voices and our energy can make a difference.

Ambassador (Ret.) Michael Guest, who was the first openly gay Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador, is senior adviser to the Council for Global Equality. He lives in Sonoma County. For more information, visit