Advancing Gay and Transgender Equality Abroad

Obama Administration Makes Strides for More Inclusive Human Rights

Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton made important steps this week for the advancement of LGBT rights worldwide, but some challenges still remain, writes Jeff Krehely.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defends the rights of  lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons from around the world  during a meeting with LGBT activists and rights supporters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons from around the world during a meeting with LGBT activists and rights supporters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Tuesday this week, the Obama administration took two huge steps in advancing the human rights of gay and transgender people around the globe.(1)

First, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum titled “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons,” which directed all U.S. agencies “engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

Second, in a speech delivered in Geneva before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council for Human Rights Day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton articulated the moral, legal, political, and economic case for gay and transgender human rights, while acknowledging the many challenges that need to be overcome to advance these rights.

Secretary Clinton asked the nations present to join the United States in its efforts to advance gay and transgender human rights. Importantly, her speech tackled head-on the many obstacles that often hinder progress on these rights, including religious opposition and the misperception that being gay or transgender is purely a Western phenomenon. She debunked these issues individually, and also placed the concept of gay and transgender rights within the United Nations’ evolving view of human rights, which has become more inclusive over the past 60 years.

In this same speech Secretary Clinton also announced the creation of the Global Equality Fund, a $3 million private-public partnership that will provide aid to nonprofit organizations around the globe working to advance gay and transgender equality.

This investment would make the United States one of the largest funders of international gay and transgender rights work. A report from the Movement Advancement Project, for example, found that 15 of the leading organizations working to advance these rights collectively have total revenues of only $7 million, with the average group having an annual revenue of about $400,000.

Not only is the sector working to advance gay and transgender human rights work, which is relatively small and sparsely funded, but it is also confronting a huge problem of antigay and antitransgender discrimination, violence, and harassment. Nearly 80 countries around the world have laws that make sexual activity between men illegal (about half of these nations also outlaw sexual activity between women). Many of these countries are located in Africa and the Middle East, but some are much closer to the United States (including popular vacation destinations such as Jamaica and St. Lucia). Some of these countries use the death penalty to punish gay men and women, while others use punishments related to imprisonment or forced labor.

In addition to these laws, many countries have other discriminatory policies—such as explicitly banning adoption by gay couples—that limit the rights of gay and transgender people, or draconian practices—such as allowing “corrective” rape of lesbians to take place in an attempt to make them heterosexual—that threaten their well-being, safety, and lives.

The Obama administration’s words and actions this week acknowledged these horrible realities in a clear, compelling way and outlined the steps it will take to protect and defend this population.

The president’s memorandum builds on previous actions by the Obama administration to combat antigay and antitransgender laws and practices around the globe. Importantly, the memorandum articulates the concrete steps the U.S. government is taking to defend and protect gay and transgender people. These steps include:

• Enhancing efforts to eliminate criminalization of homosexuality

• Improving protection for gay and transgender refugees and asylum seekers

• Strengthening international and indigenous nonprofit organizations working on gay and transgender rights

The president also called on federal agencies to report back to him in six months on their progress in advancing these goals.

The antigay and antitransgender policies and practices seen around the globe not only negatively impact gay and transgender people themselves, but they can also have devastating and wasteful impacts on entire societies.

Health programs—supported by hundreds of millions of public and private dollars—designed to stop the spread of HIV will not work if large numbers of people who need the services are afraid that using them will “out” them and place them in legal jeopardy or harm’s way. As a result, programs will not operate as efficiently as possible, and the disease will continue to spread, which has its own devastating impacts in terms of lost health, life, and productivity, and in reducing a country’s overall stability.

Economies also suffer because of these policies and practices. Recognizing the need to compete for the best and the brightest workers, many multinational corporations have workplace policies that are fully inclusive of gay and transgender people, such as nondiscrimination statements that include sexual orientation and gender identity, domestic partner benefits, and full transgender health benefits. These companies are obviously deterred from building factories, offices, and other facilities in countries that are overtly hostile to gay and transgender people.

Secretary Clinton correctly acknowledged that the United States has yet to achieve full social and legal equality for its gay and transgender citizens. Although more work needs to be done here at home (and under the Obama administration, that work is being taken very seriously, with many positive changes for gay and transgender Americans advanced so far in the president’s first term), it does not prevent us from using our diplomatic resources to help improve and save millions of lives around the globe.

Jeff Krehely is the Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.

(1) In this column, the term “gay” is often used as an umbrella term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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Jeff Krehely

Former Senior Vice President, Domestic Policy