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Back to the Bully

Back to the Bully


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

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).

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.

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."

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