– A State Department official adopted a cautious tone Tuesday while discussing the administration’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) foreign policy initiative, saying the focus was on advocating “human rights for LGBT people” rather than – as suggested by a questioner – promoting “gay rights.”
On Dec. 6, President Obama signed a memorandum which the White House called the “first-ever U.S. government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad.” The same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a keynote speech on the issue at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.Taking part in a live Web chat on the strategy, Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor, avoided using the term “gay rights” as he answered questions from around the world.
When a questioner in Suriname asked, “Why are LGBT rights a priority for the U.S. government?” he replied, “I think the answer to that is simply that human rights are a priority for the U.S. government.”
A questioner in Italy asked, “What is the U.S. planning to do to promote gay rights around the world?”
Baer replied, “First of all, I would say that going back to what the secretary said, if your question – whether we plan to ‘promote gay rights around the world’ – the first answer is that, when we take that on, we define that as promoting human rights for LGBT people, the same human rights that we promote and that Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have seen as a hallmark of our foreign policy for many, many years.”
Baer was also asked about same-sex marriage, with a questioner noting that “the U.S. is still very much divided” over the issue and wondering what impact that would have on attempts by the U.S. to pressure other countries on the issue of “LGBT equal rights.”
“It’s well understood that we have an ongoing conversation domestically about the question of marriage,” the State Department official said. “However, I think that even for those who don’t recognize a difference in kind in the question of marriage or the question of decriminalization, I think that you can recognize a difference in degree between the question of marriage and whether or not somebody should be killed or thrown in prison for who they are.”
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, homosexual acts are crimes carrying the death penalty in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria under shari’a law. In countries including Libya, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and Guyana, laws provide for imprisonment of 10 or more years for homosexuality.
The question of religion also came up during the Web chat – as it did during Clinton’s speech, when she said that among the challenges facing gays and lesbians is “when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens.”
A questioner asked Baer how the U.S. government could prevent American evangelical groups from “undermining LGBT rights abroad.”
In his response, Baer recalled speaking at a theological seminary last October “about the challenge of reconciling religious beliefs that hold that homosexuality is a sin with the commitment that each person is entitled to dignity and should be free from violence or being thrown in prison for who they are.”
“It’s a serious conversation, and we shouldn’t shy away from it,” he continued. “And there are religious people who are willing to have that conversation, and we should engage in that conversation and really identify the way forward that allows us to do justice to both.”
Last summer the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time passed a resolution endorsing LGBT rights, and expressing “grave concern” about abuses linked to the issue.
The Obama administration lobbied heavily for the measure, which passed by 23-19 votes, dividing the 47-member council largely between Western and Latin American countries in favor, and Muslim and African countries opposed.