Gay rights: Obama praised for global commitment

By Claire Veyriras, California News Service

Washington — As President Obama struggles with the politics of gay issues at home, his administration is drawing cheers from human rights groups for its commitment to gay rights around the globe.

In the past several months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech at the United Nations that dramatically shifted the international human rights focus to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, dedicated $3 million to help promote LGBT rights worldwide, and distributed educational materials to U.S. embassies to keep diplomats alert to gay rights issues.

U.S. involvement was essential in the passage of a U.N. resolution expressing “grave concern” about abuses and violations of gay and lesbian rights, as well as the first debate on gay issues before the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“It is true that Obama’s work internationally is unprecedented,” said Christopher Stoll, senior staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said, “LGBT rights are a high priority for the State Department, and I think that our commitment to this issue is clear throughout our numerous actions.”

‘A lot has changed’

While U.S. gay groups express frustration at Obama’s refusal to sign an executive order banning discrimination against gay employees of federal contractors and his “evolving” view on same-sex marriage, international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch praise the steps the Obama administration has taken worldwide.

“A lot has changed thanks to the U.S. ongoing policy,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Important steps have been taken.”

Some Republicans, including the party’s presidential candidates, reacted negatively to Clinton’s U.N. speech in December. Texas Gov. Rick Perry released a statement saying that “promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America’s interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers’ money.”

Presumed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said national security, not gay rights, should be the primary test for foreign aid.

Killings, oppression and discriminatory laws that punish gay sexual activity with the death penalty have put lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at risk in many parts of the world. They are shunned for social and religious reasons, and some of them are singled out by their own governments.

Uganda’s 2009 “antihomosexuality bill,” for example, calls for the execution of individuals found guilty of gay or lesbian sexual activity. Saudi Arabia recently banned gay students from their schools and universities, according to Arabic news reports.

Continuing concern

The United Nations has taken several steps in the past year for gay and lesbian rights. Twenty-three countries supported a gay human rights resolution in June, which put the issue on the U.N. agenda for the first time.

The action was followed in December by Clinton’s address in front of the U.N. General Assembly. The 30-minute speech was the first on gay issues ever delivered at the United Nations, signaling the U.S. commitment to the issue abroad.

Last month, the United Nations conducted an unprecedented debate on the topic in which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared “the time has come” to protect gay rights.

State Department officials say Clinton has been committed to the issue since she became secretary.

“It was not a kickoff speech but one continuing the State Department’s concern on LGBT rights since 2008,” Baer said.

Baer pointed to the U.S. Embassy’s support of a special task force in Honduras that is investigating the killing of gays and lesbians, a trend that has accelerated since the 2009 coup in that country.

Human rights leaders said South Africa has served as an international model by placing gay protections in its Constitution. Other countries have not been as supportive. When Clinton delivered her speech to the United Nations, representatives from several Arab and African nations walked out in protest, and some refused to participate in last month’s debate.

Beyond signaling the U.S. commitment to the issue, many see Clinton’s speech as helping legitimize the work of local groups around the globe.

“Several human rights defenders in countries which criminalize homosexual conduct regard her words as very inspirational, so in that respect the speech really worked well,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT Rights Program for Human Rights Watch.

The State Department says it has three main goals: advance justice, support advocates and increase public dialogue. It provides grants, meeting space and workshops to assist nonprofits and other gay groups, many of which are working in hostile environments.

Emergency support

A report by the U.S. Consul General in Hamburg said the State Department assisted more than 40 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates facing emergency situations in 11 countries during the past two years.

Things have changed since President Bill Clinton’s 1999 appointment of James Hormel, a gay San Francisco philanthropist, as ambassador to Luxembourg created a stir. Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia marched in a pride parade in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, in response to violence at the 2010 parade.

The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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