BY Kerry Eleveld
January 10 2011 5:00 AM ET
When Mark Bromley of the Council for Global Equality met with the State Department’s assistant secretary for human rights under President Bush in 2008, he says he tried to persuade the administration to take a stand against laws abroad that criminalize homosexuality. “I was basically told, ‘It’s difficult for us to speak out against a law that is legally and democratically enacted in another nation,’ ” Bromley says. “It was a polite, diplomatic way to say, ‘This is not part of our agenda.’ ”
That’s the fundamental dilemma of every diplomacy dance between countries: When does a nation’s action interfere with another nation’s self-interest? The answer largely depends on how one views the core values that define one’s “self-interest”—and it looks quite different as seen through the eyes of Cheryl Mills.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Mills acknowledges, “because we recognize that we are culturally different—each country and each culture gets to determine who they are. But when they are making determinations that go to fundamental human rights, that’s a place that we have to draw a line.”
By the time a Uganda bill surfaced in the fall of 2009 that would make homosexuality—already illegal in the nation—punishable by death or life in prison, the Obama administration had already joined more than 60 other nations in supporting the U.N. General Assembly’s statement on human rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Nonetheless, the “kill the gays” bill put the State Department’s diplomacy surrounding LGBT rights to the test.
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to several African countries, says Mills showed immediate interest in the bill, asking him what the U.S. embassy in Uganda was doing in response. “She also asked me to take advantage of any meetings with high-level officials to raise this matter,” says Carson, who was scheduled to visit Uganda on a couple occasions to consult with President Yoweri Museveni on issues surrounding his country’s involvement with peacekeeping forces in Somalia.
As those conversations concluded, Carson used the opportunity to urge Museveni to stymie the antigay bill being advanced by parliament member David Bahati. “I told him that we felt it was a violation of human rights and that this kind of legislation would have a negative impact on Uganda’s image,” he recalls.
Carson implored Museveni several more times, both in person and by phone, as did Secretary Clinton herself. By design, these discussions were done outside the media spotlight: The State Department didn’t want to inflame an already bad situation and further endanger Uganda’s gays and lesbians. “It was not until there was a greater public debate in the Uganda newspapers and we were questioned more directly here in Washington by gay and lesbian groups that we felt that it was appropriate to respond more openly outside of diplomatic channels about what we had done,” Carson says. By that time, Museveni had already acknowledged to the media that he’d had discussions about the bill with U.S. diplomats—a key step, Carson notes, to avoid shaming and potentially damaging relations with a foreign government at a critical time.
“We do not need to do something publicly when we can achieve the same goals and objectives privately,” Carson says.
For Secretary Clinton, operating in the shadows while enabling LGBT groups on the ground to exert their influence was really the best option. “Sometimes, what we might consider an appropriate political or social action on behalf of people who are under threat would not be helpful in certain cultures,” she says.
Bromley calls the State Department’s level of engagement on the Uganda bill “remarkable for any human rights issue, not just an LGBT issue.” Indeed, it’s serving as a model for U.S. diplomats in Africa, where anti-LGBT sentiment has led to violence and unjust imprisonment in countries such as Cameroon, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.
“There is this rising global tide of violence against the LGBT community around the world,” Clinton says, “and we are taking the lead in confronting the dangers of the lives and the livelihood of LGBT people as they go about their daily lives.”
As she works to redefine the U.S. role on international gay and lesbian rights, part of Clinton’s job has been to make sure a cultural shift permeates all levels of the State Department and the furthest reaches of its bureaucracies, including U.S. embassies, where change can sometimes come at a slow pace.
As part of that effort, Clinton sent a diplomatic cable shortly after her pride speech to all U.S. embassies clarifying the department’s LGBT human rights policy. The agency created a fund to support gay rights activists around the globe who may be in danger and in need of resources to relocate. “We’ve tried to put LGBT issues near the top of the administration’s foreign policy agenda and made that clear to our ambassadors and other personnel around the world,” Clinton says, “particularly in places where violence is permitted by the law, where it is inflamed by public calls, and in places where it just persists as a stumbling block to people realizing their own aspirations.”