Out of Harm’s Way

In December, President Obama set ambitious goals for protecting and rapidly resettling vulnerable LGBT refugees worldwide. Can his administration deliver?

BY Andrew Harmon

May 31 2012 11:05 PM ET

Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

NEARLY SIX MONTHS AGO, the White House unveiled a global blueprint for promoting and protecting the rights of LGBT individuals, countless numbers of whom live in countries where they are imprisoned, blackmailed, and in places like Iraq, sometimes crushed to death with cement blocks.

The State Department's 2011 Human Rights Report, released last week, provides a grim, if incomplete, catalog of such atrocities. A gay and transgender resource center in Cape Town, South Africa, documented about 10 cases per week of lesbians targeted with brutal sexual assault, often referred to as "corrective rape." Violence and extortion at the hands of police officers is pervasive in El Salvador, Turkey, Indonesia, and Cote d'Ivoire. National leaders denounce homosexuality as "the divorce of humanity from its integrity" (Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and "strange behavior that even God will not tolerate" (Gambian president Yahya Jammeh). And for country after country, the sentence "There were no known LGBT organizations" appears throughout the report like a rasping chorus.

Combating such physical and political violence is central to American foreign policy, as President Obama articulated in a December 6 memorandum and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed in her seminal "gay rights are human rights" speech at the Palais des Nations in Geneva that same day. The presidential memo reflected both the growing consciousness on the issue and the concrete work already being done by the Obama administration. It also laid out ambitious objectives for one of the global LGBT rights movement’s most vexing problems: how to aid those seeking to escape violence and persecution in virulently antigay climates.

"In order to improve protection for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers at all stages of displacement, the Departments of State and Homeland Security shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure that LGBT refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum," President Obama wrote, further instructing that federal agencies must have "the ability to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs." Homeland Security, the State Department, the Defense Department, and other agencies engaged abroad have a deadline of next week to report on what progress has been made regarding the initiatives outlined in the memo.

But the goal of identifying and ultimately resettling at-risk LGBT individuals in the United States is constrained by a complex bureaucratic process. Security and medical checks involve multiple agencies and often delay processing, which can take a year or much longer — particularly in regions such as East Africa and the Middle East, where the problem of antigay violence is, ironically, most acute. "We're a big ship that moves slowly, and as a result, quicker resettlement of these refugees often is just not possible," a State Department official said.

The U.S. takes in more displaced individuals than any other country by far, with nearly 600,000 refugees resettled from 2001 to 2010. It also provides substantial support for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that refers refugee cases to resettlement states. But there is no formal tracking mechanism for LGBT refugees in the current system, nor does there exist an official process to expedite the resettlement of those faced with life-threatening situations. If someone needs to be moved quickly, nongovernmental organizations and UNHCR typically look to countries with more rapid resettlement procedures, such as Sweden and Germany.

"The State Department has done a good job in responding to immediate needs, once a priority LGBT case is on their radar," said Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality. "What they haven't done, and what they're reluctant to do, is to create a policy by where these cases are identified and expedited. But I think that's what the president has asked for."

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