Guest Blogger

Principle vs. Incremental Change

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 09, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, Council for Global Equality, human rights abuses, LGBT right, State Department, USAID

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Michael Guest is Senior Advisor to the Council for Global Equality. Mr. Guest was America's first openly gay, Senate-confirmed Ambassador (to Romania, 2001-04). He ended his 26-year diplomatic career in December 2007 after having sought, without success, to end the State Department's discriminatory treatment of the partners of gay and lesbian Foreign Service Officers in foreign postings. A shout-out he recorded for Bilerico Project in 2007 at the end of the post.

PH2009012602264.jpgOn February 24, the State Department released its 2008 report on human rights abuses around the world. There wasn't much fanfare to the release, nor, in fact, much media coverage the next day. Murder, rape, arbitrary arrest and extortion - move along, folks, nothing here to see....

The Council for Global Equality pored through the report, taking note of how the world is treating LGBT brethren around the world. (We've compiled a digest on our website, GlobalEquality.org.) Certainly there's a strong sense of déjà vu. In many countries, gay and transgender people have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, prison abuse, and even murder. In others, housing and health care can be at issue, as are basic freedoms of assembly and association. Some government officials are cited for hate speech; in some countries, LGBT people have been forced to flee their homes. And laws in many countries are in serious need of revision, creating a climate in which LGBT people face uncertain futures.

The report covers human rights violations observed in George Bush's last year in office, of course - so thank God it doesn't rate our own country's performance! The world won't easily forget how, in the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush/Cheney Administration turned its back on crucial international human rights conventions - and on citizens' rights that are at the heart of who we are as an American people. Though I understand President Obama's interest in a forward-looking agenda, surely we need a serious examination of the erosions of liberty that occurred on Bush's watch, not only to guard against their repeat, but to restore our human rights leadership in the eyes of our foreign partners.

In the meantime, we're left with a world of LGBT woes, sketched in sad detail by our embassies abroad. The question here, too, is how the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders will respond.

Many of us worked for Obama's election precisely because we want to see real policy changes. For me, human and civil rights - both generally and for LGBT people - rank near the top of the list. During the campaign, Obama pledged that the treatment of LGBT individuals must be "...part and parcel of any conversation we have about human rights." And only last week Hillary Clinton told a European Parliament gathering that "....persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously."

Good signs, both. Now let's see concrete action.

Where this year's report mentions either LGBT abuses by government security forces, or legal discrimination against LGBT individuals, I want our embassies to be instructed to engage immediately with host foreign officials, at senior levels, to seek recourse.

I want each of those embassies to be instructed by Washington to draft country strategies aimed at strengthening LGBT groups as part of civil society, repealing or revising discriminatory laws, and reducing societal discrimination.

I want USAID to consider augmenting or redirecting program funds for countries that are willing to make equality a real priority. And for countries that refuse this goal, I want our bilateral assistance levels to be reviewed.

Finally, I want President Obama to put forth a real equality agenda at home - one based on principle, not dribbled out bill-by-bill, one congressional hearing per year. The time for incremental change is long over. Why not an LGBT civil rights bill? It's time to recommit our country to its founding principles, principles that you and I were taught as children: equality, justice, and fairness.


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First, I think it's critical for U.S LGBTQ people to start thinking about global issues outside their narrow lenses, and that includes not assuming that issues only matter if they have a queer spin on them.

I don't see much evidence here that you realise how much the world has changed, and how much the global economic crisis rightly throws all our preconceived notions of what this century will look like - Obama wants it to be another "American" one, and that erases the problematics of power and politics that are a part of "American" values that "we" might want to impose on the rest of the world. And before the usual criticism fly at those words, let me be clear: I am NOT arguing for cultural relativist arguments that forgive these atrocities that occur elsewhere.

I was especially struck by these words: "...I want our embassies to be instructed to engage immediately with host foreign officials, at senior levels, to seek recourse...instructed by Washington to draft country strategies aimed at strengthening LGBT groups as part of civil society, repealing or revising discriminatory laws, and reducing societal discrimination....I want USAID to consider augmenting or redirecting program funds for countries that are willing to make equality a real priority. And for countries that refuse this goal, I want our bilateral assistance levels to be reviewed."

On the face of it a reasonable political/diplomatic solution. Or, you could look at such statements in shock at the unspeakable arrogance in which they are drenched.

Wake up and smell the coffee: We can no longer assume that we are the centre of the world, and that other countries are just going to roll over and take our orders. Also, in reading this post and the Council reports, I'm struck by the fact that there's no acknowledgment of activists who actually work in other countries on LGBTQ issues that can't be defined by American values. I'll have more to say about immigration and global LGBTQ issues in the next few weeks but I did want to express my dismay at this kind of neo-imperialism. I've also looked at the Council's documents, and I know some of the organizations you're affiliated with - but I'm perturbed by the assumption of U.S. rightness and centrality that undergird the Council's work.

I'll have more later.

There is a whiff of Roosevelt Corollary(TR), and "teaching them to elect good men(Woodrow Wilson)and the "bog stick" sort of thinking behind this.

How do you tell a nation in the grips of and adherent to a fundamentalist path that their faith's precepts will not be toleranted?

Mind you, it would be nice, particluarly in Anglican nigeria and uganda where, along with recent American helpers, they've enacted "god's law into practice."

Send the Nimitz over, land some marines, eliminate the government and put in our own puppet dictator, a Pinochet, Noriega, or Reza Palavi....but it never works out...

I second the imperialistic tenor of tthis post, as well. It's worse when you demand of others what you don't do yourself. The actions you call for would have more weight if they reflected what happens at home. Yasmin's chiding me aside, unless Obama takes care of LGBTQI issues, and our rights at home, you cannot expect him to impose your recommendations on the world. It is my belief you lead by example. You project to the world what you would like them to be. In this regard, it would be quite hypocritical of him to demand of the world what he doesn't practice at home. So far, I don't see where he has a mind to do so.

colored queer | March 9, 2009 5:34 PM

I fully agree with Nair and was compelled to write a response. This commentary is just another example of imperialistic attitudes and broadly very typical behavior of gay white organizations to impose themselves on non-whites with full disregard to participation or opinions of people who are affected by these issues.

Moreover, I don't think any of these international gay groups are really effective in bringing any "change" in the lives of LGBT people in other countries. These groups are neither fighing in trenches in other countries nor providing any major funding support to gay orgs in other countries.

I am not even sure why so many new gay groups are popping up to work on the same issues -- in this case international gay rights. I thought we had already some other groups to "work" on international issues at Human Rights Watch, IGLHRC, Amnesty and so on. wasteful spending especially in this economy, right? Also, perhaps folks need to realize that budget of one of these groups is enough to support quite a few organizations in other countries (where mighty dollar goes a long way) in a "meaningful" way.

And seriously, is this commentary for real? do folks really think that after failed war in Iraq, US is in a position to demand things which affect the cultures in other countries? Also, I don't think Obama administration behaves in a way that our gay organizations operate i.e. go around imposing their positions on other communities and in this case countries.

Finally, our "leaders" in gay orgs need a basic coursework to study how Mandela, Gandhi, King fought for their own people or in other words people affected by the issues would rise to fight their own fights and not others who are trying to use their "fancy" imaginiations to redefine other cultures. Perhaps these folks can start working on human rights at home first. Hint: status and racism faced by LGBT people of color within the gay community would be a good start.

IN FAIRNESS, TO YOU, I MUST CONGRATULATE YOU ON YOUR CALL FOR FULL CIVIL RIGHTS UNDER A LGBTQI CIVIL RIGHTS ACT. I NEGLECTED THAT IN MY EARLIER COMMENT. MY MISTAKE.

Mr Ambassador,
Yes, I agree that the US should lead the way in promoting GLBT equality in the world. Rather than using foreign aid as another trick in our Cold War tool bag, we should begin to lead by example.

I don't think I need to make a list of our policy shortcomings on the issue within our own borders.

Wow, this is an interesting discussion!

All I can add is that I don't think that a country that practices torture as official state policy, either now or two months ago, can really go around telling other countries to be nicer to gays. I wonder if these measures would actually improve people's lives or just make US gays feel better.

I want USAID to consider augmenting or redirecting program funds for countries that are willing to make equality a real priority. And for countries that refuse this goal, I want our bilateral assistance levels to be reviewed.

Does that mean impoverished families will be denied food if their governments don't concede to US demands on LGBT rights?