Alex Blaze

International Gay Tunnel Vision

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 11, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, black sites, Egypt, George W. Bush, Honduras, state secrets, torture, united states

I was recently pointed to the Council for Global Equality's website, a group that "brings together international human rights activists, foreign policy experts, LGBT leaders, philanthropists and corporate officials to encourage a clearer and stronger American voice on human rights concerns impacting LGBT communities around the world." Basically, they advocate that the US take on a stronger role in scolding other countries into respecting LGBTQ people's basic human rights.

It's an interesting proposition considering the fact that the US is a large violator of human rights and has repeatedly claimed that treaty obligations do not apply to it and has referred to conventions that protect the weakest as "quaint." While, among the left, it's fun to say "President Obama" and pretend that US foreign policy history has restarted with a blank slate, that's far from reality.

The Council just released a paper entitled "'Top Ten' Opportunities for the U.S. to Respond (pdf)." It's a list of ten of the worst human rights violators around the world when it comes to LGBTQ people's rights and lives. I've already blogged about why continuing the imperialistic policy of defining for other countries what their human rights goals are, it's important to also note the hypocrisy in the US making those calls as well.

We torture people as a matter of official policy. We have no place to be having fainting spells because other countries still have sodomy laws that we lifted little over five years ago.

The Council gets credit for being self-reflexive and criticizing the US at the end, but I think they missed the mark a bit. Do you see what's missing in this statement?

Special Mention: The United States

The United States is not covered by the State Department's human rights report, of course. But our country takes pride in standing for equality, justice and human rights, and we claim these principles in our foreign policy leadership abroad. For the sake of America's credibility, we should and must do more to honor these principles at home. We call on the Obama Administration to partner with Congress to pass legislation banning hate crimes and employment discrimination, offer fair benefits to the families of gay and lesbian federal employees, support immigration rights through the Uniting American Families Act, repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, and include LGBT organizations among the civil society groups that America sustains abroad. This is a call for consistency and fairness in our foreign policy, and for renewed American integrity and leadership in the fight for human rights. [Ed. - Emphasis mine.]

Do these folks really think the US lacks human rights credibility because, or even largely due to, DADT, DOMA, and the fact that LGBT people can be fired at will in many states? It couldn't have anything to do with, oh, I don't know, how torture became a part of official US policy, how the US has imprisoned hundreds to thousands of people for no stated reason at all, giving them no right to a fair trial, how the US government spies on its domestic political enemies, the US's blind support of Israel in the face of a real humanitarian crisis in Palestinian land, and how both the Bush and Obama Administrations have blocked any investigation or judicial review of any of these programs by invoking a sweeping and unconstitutional "state secrets" privilege?

The US's historical arrogance and disregard for human rights in the process of resource-grabbing, compounded with the downright evil human rights violations perpetrated by the mini-Pinochets we called "the Bush Administration," have done far more to hurt our human rights credibility than any LGBT rights violation ever could.

Fortunately, our government isn't hunting LGBTQ people down and torturing us or throwing us in prison without trials, like some of the countries on the list. Nothing here is meant to justify those actions. But the US is hunting down people, throwing them in prison without trials, and torturing them. We know that it was going on under Bush, we have evidence that those programs have continued under Obama, and Obama has continuous blocked investigations into those crimes.

And the whole world knows about this. Americans are pretty much the only people still in denial about the depths of human rights abuses that its government has committed in their names and those that it continues to commit, but don't think that we can tell a country to treat its LGBT citizens better without them simply bursting out laughing.

To put it another way, could you imagine the reaction of the American people if China were to criticize the US for a human rights violation? Would that change things in the US? Would it get press? If it did, would the pundits on the teevee ever seriously entertain the idea that China might be in a position to criticize the US? (I'm not saying they are, but I am saying that we aren't.)

Where the Gay Tunnel Vision comes into play, though, is when this paper fails to mention any of these serious human rights abuses and instead decries the lack of civil equality for LGBT people in the US. Sure, if the US had a clean human rights record but still had a ban on LGBT people serving in the military, it would be good of the Council to make a point of condemning that practice, since we ought to practice what we preach and take responsibility for our missteps in the face of other countries' crimes.

But that's not the situation. The problem isn't the lack of legal equality in the US for LGBT people, the problem is the utter lack of human rights protections for other groups of people targeted by the US government. Just because they aren't directed at LGBT people necessarily doesn't mean that they're any less important.

For example, the Council makes this criticism of Lithuania:

According to the human rights report, the city of Vilnius (Lithuania's capital) would not issue a permit for a European Commission display on diversity and discrimination that was to be mounted in the city's Old City Hall Square. This is one of several instances in which leaders of the capital have embraced homophobic policies. The report further notes that on several occasions, the government denied permits for gay rights groups to organize public parades.

When it comes to Pride parades and diversity displays that are inclusive of LGBT people, yes, the US is usually pretty good about promoting those. But when it comes to the right to free assembly generally, the country that performs mass arrests of people who are located near protesters has no right to talk.

Here's part of what the Council had to say about the Kyrgyz Republic:

In a report released last year, Human Rights Watch has described a pattern of beatings, forced marriages, and physical and psychological abuse in the Kyrgyz Republic against lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men.

Physical and psychological abuse of powerless people? What country in the civilized world would do that?

Here's what the Daily Mail reported just yesterday about a US prison in Kabul:

Kabul's dark prison was just that: a place where inmates spent their days and weeks in total blackness....

'The toilet in the cell was a bucket. Without light, you either find the bucket or you go on your bed,' Mohamed says.

'There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out what felt like about 160 watts, a deafening volume, non-stop, 24 hours a day....

'While that was happening, a lot of the time, for hour after hour, they had me shackled....

'The longest was when they chained me for eight days on end, in a position that meant I couldn't stand straight nor sit.

'I couldn't sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night.

'You got a shower once a week, with your arms chained above you, stripped naked, in the dark, with someone else washing you.

'The water was salty and afterwards you felt dirtier than when you went in. It wasn't a shower for washing: it was for humiliation.'

In Kabul, Mohamed says the food was also contaminated, and he often suffered from sickness and diarrhoea....

'The floor was made of cement dust. Whatever movement you made, the air would be full of cement and I started getting breathing problems.

' My bed was a thin mattress on the floor, surrounded by that dust.'...

But US torture policy isn't mentioned in the Council's statement. Instead, "physical and psychological abuse in the Kyrgyz Republic" against LGBT people is compared to DOMA, not to "physical and psychological abuse" perpetrated by the US government.

Setting it up like that gives the false impression that the US is morally superior to these countries, since there's no one who thinks that DOMA compares to actual, systemic torture. And, because of the American exceptionalist attitude (that is, it's justified if we do it), we can all gasp in horror in how are LGBT brother and sisters are being treated in backwards countries while completely ignoring how the US treats people is deems, without trial or evidence, are guilty of terrorism.

Here is what the Council says about Honduras:

Judged by information in this year's report, Honduras was one of the worst violators of gay and transgender human rights in 2008. There were multiple killings or attacks on persons presumably because of their sexual orientation; these included the murder of a leading Honduran transgender rights activist.

Without a hint of irony, the Council, an American organization, asks Honduras to:

It also should press for a prompt and thorough investigation of the murders and other incidents noted above.

The US is the country that has refused to abide by its clear treaty obligations and investigate the war crimes committed by the Bush Administration, a country where the consensus of its pundit class is that any investigation or *gasp* prosecution would be so disruptive to the democratic process that they simply can't be performed. Is it really the country that can credibly call for Honduras to investigate state violence?

The Council doesn't pass up a chance to criticize a country that the US specifically encouraged to engage in torture. Egypt made the Council's "Top Ten" list because of its mistreatment of HIV/AIDS patients. It's definitely something that ought to stop, but doesn't it come off as more than a little bit tone deaf to call on Egypt to better respect human rights the same month that the UN Special Rapporteur released a report on the state of human rights in the War on Terror that specifically lists Egypt as a country that collaborated with the US to torture people?

The UN report, after describing the US's extraordinary rendition (i.e. torture out-sourcing) network as "only possible through collaboration," listed nations that the US sent prisoners to for the purposes of being tortured. On that list was Egypt, which is known to house and torture several hundred prisoners in CIA black sites.

How strange is it that the Council is asking the American Department of State to scold Egypt on human rights abuses against LGBT people while the American Central Intelligence Agency is asking them to house prisoners with the assumption that they'll be tortured? How would the take being criticized on human rights conditions when even the new Obama administration is refusing to take the necessary steps to end this program?

The US has no credibility on human rights issues, and it's not going to get it by expanding DP benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. While I'm sure that many people in the Council oppose many of these policies that have utterly destroyed US human rights credibility, the fact that they're calling on the State Department of the country that perpetrated all of them to scold other nations on human rights makes their proposition absurd.

Furthermore, their inability to recognize that LGBT rights violations abroad are more comparable to crimes committed against non-LGBT people by the US government is a sign of a terrible case of the Gay Tunnel Vision, where all issues that involve LGBT people are defined as "LGBT issues" only. It's a syndrome that prevents many LGBT people from working on other causes or at least seeing the connections between different struggles for equality, justice, and human rights.


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Alex, nowhere is Gay Tunnel Vision applied more than in the Isralei-Palestinian situation, I have seen this myself in activist meetings; the myopic point of view that the US GLBT community should support Israel solely because of Hamas treatment of gay Palestinians. Granted, the American GLBT community should be concerned with the plight of gay Palestinians but it's not as if Israeli action in Gaza was solely for the benefit gay Palestinians.

Or vice versa, the equally myopic POV that as, say, a LGBTs we should protest the Israeli invasion and occupation of Gaza and Palestine in ignorance of the treatment of gay Palestinians in Palestine.

It's a dicey conundrum, at best. What do we say and how do we say it when it comes to foriegn affairs? At what point does an LGBT group get involved in non-LGBT issues?

It's a dicey issue. Human rights violations often occur in war time, which is what this is, as shown by 9-11 and by anti American opinion throughout the Muslim world. I haven't seen evidence of ongoing torture. And I'm not sure how damp I'm supposed to get about violations against non combatants given the charming actions of Middle Eastern governments toward gays and women and liberals and rationalists. For me there are just more important issues.

"war time" isn't an excuse to commit human rights violations, according to the UN convention on torture, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the Senate in 1994. The fact that many human right violations are committed during war time is exactly why we created a whole 'nother term to describe them: war crimes.

And, technically, we're still at war. Perpetual war was the entire goal of the "War on Terror." If war is constant, then we never have to respect anyones rights. Right?

On September 11, 2001, Islamic extremists reset the terms of engagement of their war upon the west by exclsively and specifically targeting civilians at the World Trade Center, an event that I had a front row seat for. They measure success by the number of civilians killed.

Since they are multiple sets of civilian groups, albeit combatant civilians themselves, and since they take refuge amongst and receive support from other "non-combatant" civilians, there is no expectation of sacrosanct immunity from military action for any civilians in an area known to be an operating base for terrorists.

I wrote a similiar opionion nearly two years ago for review at The Hague.

So the position is basically that if someone has proximity to folks who carried out 9/11 (by ethnicity or geography, I'm assuming), then they deserve 9/11 happening right back at them?

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 11, 2009 11:49 PM

As "higher beings" go we have generally failed. Americans have always had tunnel vision and have been isolationists with short historical memories. There has never been an armed conflict even on our own soil where civil liberties or freedom of the press have not been effected.

Is the "Council for Global Equality" an arm of the United States government? Of course not, they are a think tank, and I am sure that they would be quick to point out American imperfections that will be totally ignored anyway. They have a right to their point of view as well right or wrong. I am glad Alex that you see the problem with Israel who as I have pointed out many times is the greatest recipient of American Foreign Aid. Close behind in American aid is Egypt. Follow the dollars you find the truth... If peace breaks out in the Middle East it will solve some important problems.

In a world where girls can have their faces sprayed with acid for committing the crime of going to school can we assume that humanity as a whole is ready to cease torture? Are news broadcasts going to cover torture constantly until it ends? Is Batman going to come and solve all our problems?

Americans believe that they live in the most successful, advanced and wonderful place in the world. Anything else is unpatriotic. Constant news programs on "for profit" airwaves to the contrary will suffer from reduced viewership and a reduction in sales of soap flakes.

Well, it is going to get more complicated than that soon enough. Our "tunnel vision" as a country and as a world will soon cost us most salt water aquatic life as our oceans absorb more Co2. Off topic I know, but it will solve a lot of additional problems when the "lungs" of the world stop working for us. Hopefully whichever life form replacing us will do a better job.