For some, the glass is half full with water, to others it's half empty, and yet to others, just having some water is better than dying of thirst. So it is that for many, the recent declarations and announcements on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could be greeted with joy by some and skepticism from others.
Many LGBT people take these pronouncements with a grain of salt, being wary and mindful of the context and the attempts at glossing over, grand standing and political mileage these erstwhile politicians are trying to earn. Wily politicians know that these issues resonate deeply in many LGBT lives - many passionately; it's about who a person is, loves and shares his or her life. In the space of a few days, President Obama declared on World AIDS Day that addressing HIV infection needs to focus on black gay men, and Clinton declared that US aid to foreign countries would be tied to LGBT rights.
"Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights," Clinton said.
These two declarations seemed to nudge LGBT issues a little forward into greater acceptance. When Obama made his declaration on World AIDS Day, a first for a sitting U.S. president, not only was he giving greater voice to one of the little known or recognized aspects of his national HIV/AIDS policy - that addressing HIV/AIDS has to focus on young black men who have sex with men - but that their mental health needs have to be taken into consideration.
Over the last several months, the president has become more vocal about making LGBT favorable pronouncements in a drip, drip manner. While he is attempting to fulfill some of the promises he made when he campaigned for the presidency, including repealing the law on gays serving openly in the military, he is up against an entrenched political machinery with religiously controlled and influenced bigotry and homophobia that has become institutionalized.
In this context, where young black boys (gay or straight) are not considered, Obama is making a bold stand for this diminutive section of society, as he said, "When new infections among young black gay men increase by nearly 50 percent in three years, we need to do more to show them that their lives matter."
The address by Clinton to the UN meeting about the US position on tying aid to foreign countries to LGBT rights is coming a little late to a party already underway; the US is finally getting on the European bandwagon. Some European countries have already made it a part of their foreign policy to make aid conditional to protecting LGBT rights.
The recent announcement by the British Prime Minister David Cameron a few months ago stirred up and sparked protests across Africa from LGBT groups and organizations dependent on foreign aid. Many of the LGBT groups in Africa see the aid tied to LGBT rights as another form of Western colonialism - "We give you aid. You do what we tell you, or no aid!"
In a widely circulated petition signed by 53 Africa-based organizations (both LGBT and non-LGBT) and approximately 86 individuals who risked retaliation such as imprisonment from their respective governments, the authors said, "An effective response to the violations of the rights of LBGTI people has to be more nuanced than the mere imposition of donor sanctions. The history of colonialism and sexuality cannot be overlooked when seeking solutions to this issue. The colonial legacy of the British Empire in the form of laws that criminalize same-sex sex continues to serve as the legal foundation for the persecution of LGBTI people throughout the Commonwealth. In seeking solutions to the multi-faceted violations facing LGBTI people across Africa, old approaches and ways of engaging our continent have to be stopped. New ways of engaging that have the protection of human rights at their core have to recognize the importance of consulting the affected."
While the intention may be to protect the rights of LGBT people on the continent, the petition's signatories stated that the decision to cut aid disregards the role of the LGBT and broader social justice movement on the continent and it creates the real risk of a serious backlash against LGBT people.
"The imposition of donor sanctions may be one way of seeking to improve the human rights situation in a country but does not, in and of itself, result in the improved protection of the rights of LGBTI people. Donor sanctions are by their nature coercive and reinforce the disproportionate power dynamics between donor countries and recipients. They are often based on assumptions about African sexualities and the needs of African LGBTI people. They disregard the agency of African civil society movements and political leadership. They also tend, as has been evidenced in Malawi, to exacerbate the environment of intolerance in which political leadership scapegoat LGBTI people for donor sanctions in an attempt to retain and reinforce national state sovereignty," the petition said.
Sanctions, the petition declared, sustain the divide between the LGBT and the broader civil society movement. In a context of general human rights violations, where women are almost as vulnerable as LGBT people, or where health and food security are not guaranteed for anyone, singling out LGBT issues emphasizes the idea that our rights are special rights and hierarchically more important than other rights. It also supports the commonly held notion that homosexuality is 'unAfrican' and a Western-sponsored 'idea' and that countries like the United Kingdom will only act when 'their interests' have been threatened.
"Furthermore, aid cuts also affect LGBTI people. Aid received from donor countries is often used to fund education, health and broader development. LGBTI people are part of the social fabric, and thus part of the population that benefit from the funding. A cut in aid will have an impact on everyone, and more so, on the populations that are already vulnerable and whose access to health and other services are already limited, such as LGBTI people," according to the petition's authors.
While Clinton's bold speech is seen as targeting mainly African countries, such as Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leon, Senegal, Ghana, and recently, Nigeria - which has made a definite statement that they would not be dictated to by foreign countries - her message also has an effect on Caribbean countries, many of which still hold to post colonial laws criminalizing same-sex relations. Jamaica, known throughout the world as one of the most homophobic countries, also declared that they too refuse to have their domestic affairs dictated by foreign countries and resent any and all attempts to coerce them into changing their way of life which they see as anathema to their culture - including laws protecting gays and lesbians.
Plus, at the same time while touting LGBT rights, the US has on the other hand cut its funding to the Global AIDS Fund, which disburses money to help with the fight against HIV and AIDS in poor or underdeveloped countries.
How could the US devise a policy of tying federal aid to countries respecting LGBT rights as human rights when in her own house, the US was one of the few countries at the UN which refused to sign the declaration of human rights respecting LGBT rights? There are states receiving funds in the US where a person could be fired from his or her job, denied housing, or medical care because of his or her sexual orientation.
"I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home," Mrs. Clinton said.
One wonders if Clinton and her government would turn the LGBT conditional aid inward and apply the same policy to some of the "offending" states, denying them until they accepted LGBT folks as people entitled to the same rights and benefits as others? Neither she nor the government could impose their intentions on the states because there is the issue of "states' rights" and each state makes its own decisions. So, too, it is with other sovereign states. As work has to be done with the citizenry of each recalcitrant state, so too, the US could use its immense influence to effect change in countries where homophobia is a way of life, to recognize the right of LGBT people to exist in harmony with others.
Addressing the underlying reasons for the increase in the numbers of HIV infections among young black gay men is more crucial than the "band-aid for a gunshot wound" form of treatment that is condoms, information, campaigns and medication - which have become the norm for the last 30 years. Social scientists are wringing their hands in frustration at policies which seem to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. To many young black men who have sex with men, or who identify as gay, messages about HIV and AIDS from 20 or 30 years ago have lost its sting and are no longer seen as relevant. Those responsible for messaging have become stuck in a rut and are seemingly bereft of new ideas to reach the demographic now more highly affected by HIV.
It has to be understood and accepted that a society, led by those who wield political power and make decisions by setting examples, needs to make a concerted commitment to remove stigma, discrimination, and homophobia. In the black community, getting the churches to push for greater inclusion and acceptance, and for black gay men combatting intra-racism and internalized homophobia as a way of reducing the feelings of worthlessness, low self esteem, powerlessness, reduced self confidence, and being less than a man are vitally important. All these feelings are associated with depression - which leads to suicide and increased risk of HIV infection.
In a sense, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have a shared message: they have both made public announcements of their positions on LGBT rights and, as in Obama's case, recognized the needs of young black gay men in the fight against the rise in HIV. This year alone, Obama has stepped out and shown his support for LGBT community members and in the process has raised millions of dollars for his reelection campaign from rich LGBT donors alone, so it's only fair payback for him to make declarations and executive orders seeming to favor the powerful LGBT lobby - a growing political force to be reckoned with.
Admittedly, the President's message and Clinton's pronouncement sends a strong statement that if a person is gay, whether male, female or a third sex, he or she could begin to feel that at least the government is on his or her side; that eventually, he or she would receive support and protection. Problematic is Obama's struggling against an intransigent legislature dragging its collective feet on passing ENDA, repealing DOMA, and reforming the Immigration Act and the IRS Code allowing LGBT benefits equal to heterosexuals.
So how effective are his LGBT flavored declarations?