Back to the Bully Pulpit

By Ryan Richard Thoreson

Originally published on Advocate.com October 08 2008 12:00 AM ET

In 1995,
then–first lady Hillary Clinton famously declared
that women’s rights are human rights at a
United Nations conference in Beijing. With more than a
decade under our belts since then, the question arises: Will
the next president (or first lady) make a similar statement
about gay rights on the international stage?

After eight years
in which the Bush administration has failed to support
gay rights stateside, let alone around the world, the
opportunity is there for the next president to use his
bully pulpit to champion equality and decry
state-sanctioned oppression of gay people. As a superpower
and beacon of democracy, human rights activists say,
this country should use its influence to lobby against
LGBT-related abuses. For starters: working with the 86
United Nations member countries that consider homosexuality
a crime, including the seven that punish it by death,
to change their minds.

“The U.S.
hasn’t been as clear and insistent on LGBT issues as
it has on issues like violence against women and human
trafficking,” says Michael Guest, the gay
former ambassador to Romania who now serves as senior
adviser to the Council for Global Equality (formerly the
LGBT Foreign Policy Project). “By giving the
level of support to LGBT groups that it allocates for
women, the poor, ethnic and religious minorities, and the
disabled, the U.S. could pull off a hat trick: It could
financially support the work of those groups, send a
clear signal that they’re being taken
seriously, and show repressive governments that it’s
keeping tabs on those who subject their citizens to
arbitrary arrest and abuse.”

But it’s
up to the next president to lead the way. One of the key
uses of presidential power is “to show moral
leadership,” says Scott Long, head of the LGBT
program at Human Rights Watch. “Saying something
about [gay rights] would be an incredibly powerful
message.”

There’s no
shortage of places where such a stand could make a
difference. Just this summer, officials in Saudi
Arabia, a longtime American ally, arrested 21 men for
allegedly being gay—an offense punishable by flogging
or imprisonment in the kingdom—and police in Dubai
arrested 17 foreigners on charges of cross-dressing or
otherwise violating gender norms. And in many
countries where homosexual relations are legal, conditions
are far from perfect: In Russia, Poland, Croatia,
Latvia, and Moldova, pride marches are routinely
banned by authorities or attacked by protesters; in
South Africa, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2006 and
bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation
in its constitution, lesbians have been subject to
“corrective rape.” Long says U.S.
intervention would have the most impact in sub-Saharan
Africa, the Caribbean, eastern Asia (he names South
Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan), and Eastern
Europe (Croatia, Romania, and Poland, for example).

2007 protest in Chisinau, Moldova x390 (Getty) | Advocate.com

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
says.

Neither
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.

Gay Pride March Warsaw 2004 x390 (Getty) | Advocate.com

The
candidates’ differences aren’t always so
black-and-white, though. The Uniting American Families
Act, for instance, which would provide a mechanism for
foreign-born same-sex partners to immigrate to the United
States, has languished in Congress for years. Neither
nominee has unreservedly embraced the bill -- but the
differing tones of their stated reservations speak
volumes. McCain spokesman Taylor Griffin says the
senator “would oppose using any federal statute to
intervene in this area,” while Obama spokesman
Ben LaBolt says his candidate “strongly
supports equal treatment for LGBT binational couples under
our immigration laws.” However, he wants to
“minimize the potential for fraud and
abuse,” ostensibly because heterosexuals might try to
scam the system.

Granted, the bill
might not progress under either president -- it’s up
to Congress, really, though the White House helps set
the legislative agenda (particularly if one party
controls both branches of government). But if the bill
continues in a holding pattern, changing immigration laws
for gay couples by other means is virtually impossible
because of the Defense of Marriage Act, says Rachel B.
Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality.
Obama avidly supports repealing DOMA, while McCain does not.

The next
president could also engage in diplomacy on human rights
abuses suffered by gay people around the world, and on
that point, both candidates seem to agree. McCain
“believes that every person is born in freedom
and that we have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye
to assaults on the collective dignity of humanity
wherever they occur,” says spokesman Griffin,
and he’s willing to use “all appropriate means
to defend democracy and human rights.” Obama
spokesman LaBolt offers a similar (if more specific)
position: “Obama will exert diplomatic pressure
and employ other foreign policy tools to encourage other
nations to address human rights abuses and atrocities
committed against LGBT men and women.”

If there were an
irony to American intervention on these issues, it would
be this: It’s hard to be a credible champion for gay
rights internationally when you’re not exactly
an emblem of them. “The U.S. should start by
changing its own policies regarding LGBT people -- only
then will it have a legitimate voice with which to urge
other countries to do the same,” says Paula
Ettelbrick, executive director of the International
Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, adding that
repealing “don’t ask, don’t
tell” and DOMA, and decisively removing the ban
on HIV-positive travelers would be good starts. “Only
those governments who have taken seriously their human
rights obligations are in a position to influence
others.”