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After eight years of avoidance by the Bush administration, will Obama or McCain champion gay rights in American foreign policy?



2007 protest in Chisinau, Moldova x390 (Getty) |

But the Bush
administration hasn’t made gay rights advocacy a
priority anywhere, at home or abroad. In fact, the
White House didn’t have anything to boast of on
that front until this July, when the president signed
into law the reauthorization of the President’s
Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which included a
provision repealing a ban on HIV-positive foreign
visitors to the United States (though as of press time, the
ban was still effectively in place, barring those with
“communicable diseases of public
significance,” leaving such determinations to the
discretion of the Department of Health and Human
Services). When Bush has had the chance to speak out
on gay rights in a foreign-policy context, he’s
declined. One example: On numerous occasions Bush has
praised Uganda’s efforts against HIV, but
he’s never mentioned repressive antigay measures
on the books there.

So what could the
United States do differently?

Richard Grenell,
spokesman for Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to
the United Nations, says promoting democratization, free
speech, and a free press are critically important for
LGBT groups worldwide, and that the United States
already works in those ways to support mainstream human
rights organizations. Doing the same for gay rights
organizations would be a natural next step. The United
States could also press governments to curb repressive
laws, Guest says. And Mark Bromley, a founding member of
the Council for Global Equality, points out that
“legal assistance is offered to a lot of
countries, especially in Eastern Europe, where
countries are evolving their legal and political systems.
U.S. advisors could make a real difference in those
countries where homosexuality is criminalized.”

But Long of Human
Rights Watch cautions that there’s no
one-size-fits-all way of exerting influence.
“In some cases quiet diplomacy will have an
impact, in some cases high-level contacts will, and in a
relatively small number of cases, highly public
pressure and aid contingency [will work],” he

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama nor his
Republican opponent, John McCain, has made sexual
orientation in foreign policy a talking point this
campaign season. But their positions on gay rights do
offer clues as to how they might approach the subject, if at
all. “If you look at how they address these
issues domestically, Obama has a much broader plan for
engaging and addressing LGBT rights,” Bromley says.
His colleague Guest, who informally advises Obama,
suggests that the Illinois senator’s
cosponsorship of the Matthew Shepard Act hate-crimes
legislation and his support of the Employment
Non-Discrimination Act reflect principles that go
beyond American borders. (McCain doesn’t
support either bill.) “There’s a major
difference in the way the two candidates will deal
with LGBT issues from the start,” Guest says.

In fact, Obama
was asked a question on the campaign trail this year about
granting asylum to gay people from other countries, to which
he responded by saying the United States has
“both a legal and a moral obligation to protect
victims of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender
identity.” That opinion is in line with his support
for gay rights domestically -- and his pattern of
talking about gays and lesbians on the stump.

Tags: Politics