Good afternoon. I want to thank the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies for the invitation to speak to you today on one of the most important human rights challenges of our era: the global struggle for human rights for gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual individuals and the very recent development of United States foreign policy to uphold these rights for LGBT persons worldwide.
On June 5, 1985, on my way to my very first day of training as a newly-minted U.S. diplomat, I glanced across our national Mall and saw the U.S. Capitol and its iconic dome. My heart was bursting with pride in the career I was embarking on to serve my country. At the very same time, I said to myself – and I meant it – “No one will ever hurt me because I am gay.” Yes, that was about 15 years after Stonewall, but it was also only about 30 years after the McCarthy purges of hundreds of gay diplomats and other public servants from the U.S. government. During the very first close-door briefing we newly-minted diplomats had from Diplomatic Security, we heard, “We don’t want homosexuals in the Foreign Service. If you are, we’ll hunt you down and drum you out!” I thought, “Yeah, you just try it.”
Although it was becoming a gray area, by the beginning of the 1990s, it was still possible that one’s security clearance could be jeopardized for being gay. After five years, it was time for my security clearance to be renewed, and – yes – it was held up for months and months. I finally got fed up. I went to the head of Diplomatic Security and said, “You have no reason to deny my security clearance. I want it on my desk in one week, or I’m going to the Washington Post.” It was on my desk in one week. Ten years later, by 2000, it was still nearly a radical act to include material about LGBT rights in the State Department’s annual Country Human Rights Reports. It wasn’t until just a handful of years ago that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a major speech at the United Nations in Geneva, “LGBT rights are human rights. Period.”
But I’m not here today to rehash ancient history. There has been a seismic shift in public opinion about LGBT rights, not only in the United States but also in many other parts of the world. What I’d like to do is spend a short time detailing for you where LGBT rights stand in U.S. foreign policy. Our country’s top leaders, including President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry have not only become leading voices in support for LGBT rights, they have also committed resources and are driving policy to advance human rights of LGBT individuals. Our leaders have made it a priority to demonstrate that America is a staunch ally in this global fight.
To quote Vice President Biden, “In every aspect of American foreign policy, we should have as the focus in our foreign policy that we lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” In the past few years, we have done just that.
In 2011, President Obama directed all Federal agencies working abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomatic and foreign-assistance efforts both protect and promote the human rights of LGBT persons. This has translated into increased benefits for LGBT government employees and their partners, new programs to protect refugees and asylum seekers, and the mobilization of a task-force designed to respond swiftly to LGBT abuses abroad. It has also led to the launch of the Global Equity Fund, a coalition of 13 like-minded governments, corporations, and foundations that has provided more than$ 7.8 million in over 50 countries to support groups that work to protect LGBT rights.
Our increased focus on LGBT issues has resulted in training programs and other ways to assist diplomats to integrate the rights of LGBT people into American foreign policy. LGBT issues are now covered in each of the 199 annual Country Reports on Human Rights. Consular Affairs now publishes information for American travelers on countries with concerns about LGBT harassment or criminalization. We work closely with organizations like the UN Human Rights Council, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on efforts that promote and protect the rights of LGBT persons worldwide.
We work closely overseas with civil society organizations that promote human rights for LGBT persons, such as the Blue Diamond Society in Nepal. Along with our Embassy in Kathmandu, this progressive organization organized the first South Asian LGBT Sports Festival in 2012, in which four-time U.S. Olympic diving gold medalist Greg Louganis led the U.S. delegation to promote human rights for the LGBT community and individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Our Embassy in Kathmandu also supported funding for the organization’s newly-launched Pink Himalayan Community Center, the first of its kind in South Asia, that serves as a resource center for the LGBT community and promotes LGBT activism.
Additionally, we utilize our Public Diplomacy programs to spread awareness of LGBT issues through messaging and programming. Through our International Visitor Leadership Program, we invite foreign human-rights and LGBT leaders to participate in three-week exchanges to learn first-hand about human-rights policy and advocacy in the U.S. We sponsor LGBT rights awareness programs such as film festivals, pride week festivals, photo exhibits, radio shows, journalism competitions, and visiting U.S. speaker events. We employ the power of social media, using Facebook and Twitter to amplify our LGBT message to receptive online audiences, as well as on-the-record traditional interviews and statements by high-level State Department officials.
Yet despite progress in equal rights for LGBT persons around the world, our work is far from finished. In the first-ever UN General Assembly event to advance the human rights of LGBT individuals, Secretary Kerry noted that “In too many places around the world, LGBT persons are still punished for simply exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms.” This is an unfortunate truth: with about 80 countries worldwide criminalizing homosexuality, LGBT persons around the world remain vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, harassment, discrimination, and violence. Even today, five countries still define homosexuality as a crime punishable by death.
We closely follow the situation in Uganda, where the newly enacted “anti-homosexuality act” not only provides for life imprisonment for homosexuality, but places significant restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly for all Ugandans – and most recently, attempts to undermine efforts of U.S.-funded projects to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS. We track the state of affairs in Russia, where the new, so-called anti-gay propaganda law criminalizes free expression with respect to what it terms as “non-traditional” sexual relations. We monitor the situation in India, where the Supreme Court overturned a landmark ruling that found the ban on consensual homosexual activity unconstitutional.
And yet, there are countries that serve as beacons for the rest: countries like Argentina, which pave the way for other countries in South America to follow its lead with progressive LGBT legislation. In South Asia, Nepal’s High Court overturned a previous ban on homosexuality in 2007 and has extended legal recognition to third-gender citizens. And in Pakistan, the Supreme Court recognized a third gender for its hijira community in 2009 and extended third-gender voter IDs to the population; just a few days ago, the Supreme Court in India did the same thing. South Africa outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation explicitly in its constitution. We applaud and highlight these countries’ efforts when talking about our own efforts to encourage equal rights for LGBT communities everywhere.
Despite such advances made worldwide, much remains to be done to promote and protect the rights of LGBT persons. It is the duty of American diplomats to shape foreign policy to promote human rights for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, especially in the far reaches of those countries that prove most hostile towards them. We rely on our strong Department of State leadership to back these efforts, and ensure that our diplomatic corps prioritizes human rights for all.
In closing, let me add one personal word of caution. There are times and places where I believe we need to temper our idealism with at least a certain degree of realpolitik. In our desire to do good, we should never forget the terribly important maxim, “First do no harm.” There are countries in the world, whether religiously or culturally deeply conservative, that will react to our values and goals with backlash against their own LGBT citizens. We should maintain enough humility to remember that we are terribly new at promoting LGBT human rights as U.S. foreign policy. Of course we want to do good – but we should do it, with patience, in a way that results in the maximum benefit for those we want to help.
Thanks very, very much for your kind attention.