BY Advocate Contributors
July 14 2010 7:00 PM ET
While we take issue with many of the points leveled against us in James Kirchick’s Advocate commentary “Diplomatic Disconnect,”we agree with his larger perspective. We share his belief that LGBT Americans can and should be engaged in making the world a better place for LGBT citizens in countries less democratic than our own, even while we simultaneously struggle to extend equality for all LGBT citizens at home.
But to have impact on the world stage, we firmly believe that the domestic and the international are interconnected and that we cannot advance one struggle without advancing both. In that sense, we believe that human rights begin “in small places close to home,” as Eleanor Roosevelt, credited with founding the modern human rights movement, so famously observed.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kirchick’s argument comes dangerously close to embracing the ugly specter of U.S. exceptionalism — the idea, in this case, that because things are relatively better in this country, the United States need not participate on an equal footing or with equal candor in reviewing its own human rights record. At heart, this argument stands in contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt’s equally famous human rights exhortation that “without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
In the spirit, then, of Eleanor Roosevelt, we are indeed guilty of “concern for legislative minutia in Washington,” as Mr. Kirchick suggests, because such minutia has been deployed against us for decades to deny full equality to LGBT Americans. In so doing, it also limits our credibility when our government speaks to human rights abuses against LGBT communities in Bishkek, Moscow, or Kampala. In contrast, by acknowledging our own shortcomings on the world stage, and by working to overcome that legislative minutia as LGBT Americans did in pushing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act through Congress last year, we expand liberty at home and secure an important bully pulpit from which to encourage other countries to address the human rights of their own LGBT citizens. And we do so with a sense of humility and candor about our own domestic reality that is immensely powerful to those watching and listening around the world.
The Council for Global Equality, a coalition of 19 U.S.-based advocacy organizations that work for LGBT rights here and abroad, has a mission to promote a U.S. foreign policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity concerns. We are passionate about the opportunities presented by an Obama White House and a Clinton State Department to ensure that the United States finally joins allies in Europe, Latin America and beyond that have been leading the global movement for LGBT equality. They have done so by responding to grave human rights abuses against LGBT individuals around the world, taking the lead while the United States sat silently on the sidelines in years past. Fortunately, under the Obama administration, we have found very willing partners in the White House and the State Department. They understand that as part of our larger struggle to restore our nation’s human rights credibility, we need to lead on some of the most difficult human issues of the day, and that includes support for LGBT rights in countries like Uganda and Malawi.
President Barack Obama has noted that “criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable.… We urge all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution.” In a powerful speech in honor of Pride Month in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized that “These dangers are not ‘gay’ issues. This is a human rights issue. Just as I was very proud to say the obvious more than 15 years ago in Beijing that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, well let me say today that human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights, once and for all.”
In his piece, Mr. Kirchick specifically criticizes the Council’s recent submission of a report to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights as part of the U.N.’s “Universal Periodic Review Process,” which is known in U.N. terms as the “UPR” process. It is a relatively new peer-review mechanism whereby all U.N. member states agree to report on their own efforts to promote human rights, and it is founded on the belief that no state has a perfect human rights record and that we can all learn from one another as we strive to entrench ever stronger human rights protections. The Council’s report to the U.N. freely admits that the United States is failing in its obligations to its own LGBT citizens under a variety of human rights standards. While Mr. Kirchick doesn’t disagree with the content of our report, he is concerned about airing our country’s dirty laundry at the United Nations. Indeed, he thinks that such candor somehow minimizes the plight of LGBT people in countries with more egregious human rights landscapes and in political systems that are less democratic than our own.
We strongly disagree. Both the effectiveness of the U.N. human rights system, which has admittedly seen its credibility stretched in recent years, and the effectiveness of the United States as a human rights champion, since our own human rights credentials have also been stretched in recent years, depend on the integrity of the process and the universality of the approach. As a nation, we should not undermine the system’s credibility any further by playing into the hands of human rights critics who insist that the U.N. is an inherently biased mechanism that affords wealthy democracies smug opportunities to lash out at the inequities in the developing world, while protecting themselves from equally exacting scrutiny. The abuses are not equivalent, but the review process must be equally searching in all cases.
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