Steve Ralls

A Mother, Her Son and a Test of America's New Foreign Policy

Filed By Steve Ralls | April 10, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: Aeryn Gilleran, Austria, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kathy Gilleran, missing persons, State Department, United Nations

In recent months, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have begun cautiously expressing hope that, in addition to recent, hard won victories here at home, we may be on the verge of a little bit of progress abroad, too.

Our community rightly cheered when the Obama administration recently reversed a Bush administration policy and endorsed a United Nations declaration on protecting the world's LGBT people. And we looked on with admiration and pride again as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that she and President Obama intend to stand against anti-gay animus on the world stage, too. Speaking in March to a group of enthusiastic supporters in Brussels, Clinton told the crowd that "Human rights is and always will be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. In particular, persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously."

The remark, press outlets reported, brought about wild applause and, for perhaps the first time, sent a clear message to foreign leaders that the United States intends to speak out against anti-gay atrocities abroad. It was, to paraphrase Secretary Clinton's famous words as America's First Lady, intended to put the world on notice that we believe "human rights are gays rights, and gay rights are human rights, too."

But, as noble as the sentiment of both actions were, they gave little comfort to Kathy Gilleran, a mother from upstate New York whose son, Aeryn, has been missing in Austria for more than a year and a half. Because, while Kathy would love to believe that a new day has dawned in diplomatic affairs, she continues to struggle in her heroic efforts to learn the truth about her gay son and continues to meet roadblock after roadblock in her quest to uncover the facts about what happened in Vienna.

As we reported last year here at Bilerico, Aeryn Gillern was last seen in October 2007 in Vienna, where he was working with the United Nations International Development Organization, or UNIDO. He disappeared suddenly, without any prior warning, and for no apparent reason. According to his mother, Aeryn seemed happy and content with his life abroad the last time they spoke, just shortly before he vanished, and there were no indications that anything was amiss.

"Aeryn loved the history and the culture [of Vienna], especially the architecture and music," Kathy writes at the website she has set up to honor her son, where she also notes that she often switches, in her writing, between the past and present tense when talking about him. "I think you will find that I switch back and forth because although I believe Aeryn is no longer alive, he is and he was," she says.

And, by all measures, he had much going for him in life. Aeryn was successful in his career, had a loving, supportive mother and was enjoying his life in Austria. And, he was also openly gay, which, as far as Kathy was always concerned, was nothing close to a big deal. But mounting evidence indicates it may be why his disappearance continues to be shrouded in mystery and why, despite numerous efforts, Kathy can't seem to get Austrian officials to take his case seriously.

In fact, Kathy has now flown to Vienna twice since her son vanished, and has implored local investigators to launch a comprehensive investigation into what happened on the night Aeryn disappeared. She has implored the U.S. State Department to intervene and press Austrian officials to do the right thing. And she has even met with members of the Austrian parliament.

And this is what it has gotten her so far:

A statement from investigators in Vienna to the press characterizing Aeryn as "an emotionally unbalanced gay man."

Charges - to his own mother - that Aeryn likely committed suicide because, as a gay man, he was likely HIV-positive and despondent about his health.

Disproven reports that DNA samples were available to investigators.

And a parliamentary inquest that resulted in local police defending their own actions and concluding, after investigating themselves, that they did nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, Aeryn Gillern is still missing and there don't appear to be enough people who are taking it very seriously. And, more and more, it seems likely that the lack of initiative is being driven by an over-abundance of homophobia.

Several people, Kathy Gilleran told me when I spoke with her yesterday, have recently come forward to give her information on other people missing abroad - missing in Vienna, even - whose disappearances have been thoroughly investigated. Those cases, they point out, have warranted the intervention of the U.S. Embassy and the interest of other diplomatic venues and officials.

The only difference between those missing persons and Aeryn Gillern is that Aeryn happened to be gay.

In a letter sent this week to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who represents the Gilleran family in the Senate, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - the only organization, Gilleran says, who has stood by her side throughout the entire ordeal - encouraged the new Senator to push for a full investigation.

"PFLAG has been proud to support Ms. Gilleran in her quest to learn about the details surrounding Aeryn's disappearance, and we support all efforts to discover the details about what happened in Vienna," the organization wrote. "We hope that Congress, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Austria will take the case seriously and explore every viable option for discovering the details about what happened to Aeryn. It is simply unacceptable that Ms. Gilleran has been unable to learn the facts about her son's disappearance and disheartening that Austrian authorities appear not to have taken the case seriously."

Indeed, the case of Aeryn Gillern may be an early test of just how LGBT-inclusive America's new foreign policy will be, and how much diplomatic pressure officials are willing to exert to protect, defend and stand up for LGBT people living - and missing - abroad. Because until the search for Aeryn is taken seriously, we cannot truly say that LGBT equality - and respect for the dignity of LGBT people - is a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

For more information on Aeryn's case, visit www.aeryngillern.com.


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Clearly this is a case of nobody caring about the disappearance of an adult, gay male. Just remember the huge deal made out of Natalee Holloway's disappearance in Aruba. The press was all over that, as was US law enforcement. And not one person used suicide or despondency as the reason for that disappearance.

This double standard pisses me off. If you are pretty, young, white and female and you disappear, then you are deserving of having attention. If you are a person of colour, gay, or something other than 'pretty white female' then your disappearance is down to a) drugs deals gone awry b) despondency over ill health c) insert stereotyped reason here, and no one gives a shit.

This sounds like a conflict of interest: police investigating themselves! Hardly a balanced, impartial approach to resolving issues! Here in Canada though, we have a long way to go before we are further ahead as far as investigations are concerned.

Despite the fact that a constitution guarantees certain rights, changing people's perceptions and attitudes will take some time. These are always lagging behind regardless of the station in life, whether these people are in government or in the general public. These attitudes and perceptions must change or hypocrasy remains!

The bond between mother and child is strong, so I wish a speedy, sucessful end to this drama in a way that is of benefit to all concerned.

Kathryn Gilleran | April 11, 2009 5:36 PM

I agree with you Sher. I don't want to take away from the grief that the Holloway family is going through, because they truly are victims. But the reality is, right from the start my son's case was treated different. Not just by the Austrian Police but by the US Embassy in Vienna. All the attention was focused on the fact that he was a gay male "....thus HIV positive (which he was not and they knew it), emotionally unbalanced (which he was not), thus he committed spontaneous suicide". This is what the police repeated to me over and over. In the DSM IV, "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders", which is the Physicians bible of diagnosing illnesses, there is no such thing as "spontaneous suicide". I guess it only happens in Austria to Gay Men. Hate Crimes, Defamation, and Indifference against LGBT's continue to be on the rise, here and abroad.
Thanks Steve for keeping my son's story alive and sharing it. My goal is to find the truth about what happened to my son. Also to prevent another family from ever having to go through a situation like this, alone, with no Embassy help to navigate in a foreign country. With PFLAG as an advocate and hopefully the help of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, I pray we reach that goal, and that equality and acceptance becomes closer to reality. But people have to be willing to speak up. Silence is our worse enemy.
Kathy

Ingrid McWilliams | April 14, 2009 4:17 PM

My friend, Kathy, has been trying to move heaven and earth to get answers to her son's disappearance. The only way to make that happen is to not let this story disappear. The authorities know Kathy has to eventually go back to the U.S. and they just have to "wait her out" until that happens. Only with international pressure and media attention will anything happen. Thank you to all of those who are trying to make that happen.
Ingrid

Thanks to the writier of this article. We would not know about this story without your help. This seems like a good opportunity for the new senator from NY to support constituents in the upstate NY area. One would hope that our new Secretary of State would be involved, as well.

Prayers of comfort and courage to all involved.

I just somehow have to believe that one day soon, our goverment, heck even the human race, will start to care about each other. This mother has been through hell clearly and who is fighting for her? Is there anyone out there that can stand up and say enough?

I have been following this story since Aeryn's disappearance in 2007 and I still cannot believe that we still have no information about his disappearance today than we did a year and half ago.

I'm leaving this comment in hopes that it motivates people to give a damn. This woman needs people to give a damn about her son Aeryn.

I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers Ms. Gilleran. Good luck.

I just wanted to say thank you so much to the person who wrote this story ! I know this mother and met her son they are both incredible people !Aeryn missing is a loss to anybody who could of had the pleasure to meet him and the world for the impact he would have made. This man worked for the UN he was making a difference ! His mother was a Police Officer and made a difference in the lives of the people she interacted with and still does today ! Ya know I can understand that predjudice is out there, but to not as a Police Officer want to at the veryy least bring some small comfort to a grieving mother is absolutely beyond my comprehension. To me that would be a core type of thing that would make someone want to do that type of work to do things just like that. Its a disgrace to that office and their nation.