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.
And if we admit the importance of revealing our own flawed record, then why shouldn’t we use such an honest confession to invigorate our ongoing domestic struggle for full equality? As LGBT Americans, we should grab at every tool in the toolbox. So why shouldn’t we point out that our lack of federal employment protection for LGBT Americans puts us well behind the pack when we compare ourselves to other human rights leaders at the United Nations? Indeed, our slow pace as compared to many of our closest allies has lent momentum to past struggles for equality here in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court found international human rights law relevant to its decision in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas. In overturning precedent and striking down a homosexual sodomy statute in Texas, the Lawrence opinion referred to a leading human rights case decided more than 20 years before in Europe, recognizing that sometimes “laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress.”
It is also important to recognize that our fellow LGBT activists around the world are increasingly using the UPR process to draw attention to the myriad ways in which LGBT people are being discriminated against in almost every country – from the most democratic to the most oppressive. Many of our closest European allies, including those with a far better record in protecting the rights of their LGBT citizens, have come under equally harsh scrutiny. The new UN Human Rights Council, where the UPR process is conducted, needs the support of governments and NGOs alike – and LGBT advocates have found it to be surprisingly responsive to LGBT concerns in the short time that it has been in existence. Unfortunately, impact at the UN is measured in decades, not years. But for LGBT human rights defenders, the UN Human Rights Council is one of the most important venues that exists to challenge the worst abusers, and to air laundry that is far dirtier than our own.
Mr. Kirchick also fails to note that the State Department specifically requested such input and is using similar submissions from other advocacy communities to compile the official U.S. government report for the UPR. Last spring, the U.S. government held a series of community listening sessions in twelve cities around the country. U.S. officials wanted to learn how particular communities experience their own human rights concerns at a community level. So instead of criticizing our submission, Mr. Kirchick should laud the U.S. government process as one for other countries to emulate in preparing their own reports. And when egregious abusers submit reports that stretch credibility, we can point both to their failure of content and their failure of process in our condemnation.
Finally, one cannot help noting that the United States issues an impressive report every year detailing human rights conditions in every other country in the world. But we don’t report on ourselves in that annual report. Those human rights reports have become some of the best, most comprehensive reports detailing the human rights landscape facing LGBT people globally – more comprehensive than any NGO has managed to compile in any single year. The reports are critical to asylum claims, and to any reliable advocacy work. But every year, those who face the toughest critique try to turn the table on the United States by arguing that the United States refuses to shine a light on its own human rights practice. Here, then, is a fitting opportunity to set out our own human rights shortcomings, as we do every year for every other nation on the planet. It is particularly fitting that we have an opportunity to do so with respect to LGBT struggles in the same year that our own State Department created a special new section in its annual human rights report to address LGBT human rights concerns in other countries in the world.
The human right framework depends on universality, and on all of us upholding human rights in small places close to home. Many conservatives in this country would like nothing more than to see us disconnect from the United Nations and the international human rights movement. In contrast, we believe we need to reconnect, and that arguments that dance around U.S. exceptionalism undermine the very freedoms we hope to promote in the world.