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U.S. foreign policy, at least as it pertains to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) human rights, changed immensely for the better after the 2008 presidential election. In recent years, gay rights has finally won a place on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Whether policymakers’ increased attention to this issue will persist depends on the outcome of this year’s presidential election.
The George W. Bush administration did not consider LGBT human rights a foreign policy priority. In December 2008, for example, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations refused to sign a declaration affirming that the protections enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights extend to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and calling upon member states not to criminalize homosexuality. (A 2011 UN report counted 76 countries that make homosexuality a crime, with at least five deeming it a capital offence.) Some commentators and activists saw the United States’ refusal to sign the declaration as an attempt by the Bush administration to use foreign policy to pander to the religious right. Administration officials argued, however, that their objections were not social or religious but based on concerns that some of the document’s provisions would infringe on U.S. states’ rights to draft their own anti-gay legislation.
What a difference an election can make. Just eight weeks into President Barack Obama’s tenure, the United States announced that it would sign the UN declaration. When asked about the previous administration’s legal objections, Robert Wood, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said that the declaration “commits us to no legal obligations.” In other words, although it was largely a symbolic gesture, the Obama administration saw the value of joining the 66 other signees in support of LGBT rights.
The two administrations’ handling of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was also strikingly different. PEPFAR was the one Bush-era foreign policy initiative that could have produced real and concrete benefits for LGBT human rights abroad. Bush committed an unprecedented $15 billion over five years to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide. But the program fell victim to the domestic culture war. By the time it became operational, PEPFAR had been subject to some onerous stipulations and counterproductive practices that served to promote conservative pet causes -- such as abstinence education -- and bypass outreach to key demographics, such as gay men.
As a result of advocacy by civil society groups, Bush addressed this particular omission in his 2008 reauthorization of PEPFAR. That iteration pledged “assistance for appropriate HIV/AIDS education programs and training targeted to prevent the transmission of HIV among men who have sex with men.” The change was noteworthy and welcome. Since the 2008 election, government attention to this demographic has only expanded. In May 2011, for example, the Obama administration released a technical guidance document on HIV prevention programs aimed at gay men.
Furthermore, on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Obama unveiled a groundbreaking government strategy in U.S. foreign policy: The United States would start to use the U.S. foreign policy apparatus to protect and advocate for gay rights abroad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced to the world at a session of the UN Human Rights Council that defending the rights of LGBT persons is “a priority of our foreign policy.” Reprising a famous line from her 1995 address to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, Clinton declared that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
The Obama administration’s new strategy directs the relevant U.S. government agencies in charge of executing the United States’ foreign policy to, among other things, combat the
criminalization of LGBT people, provide foreign aid to support LGBT human rights defenders, respond swiftly and meaningfully to LGBT human rights abuses abroad, and work for gay rights through multilateral forums. These have not been empty promises. In June, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi organized what is believed to be the first gay pride event ever held in Kenya, a country where homosexual relations are punishable by up to 21 years in prison. Additionally, the State Department established a public-private partnership fund, to which it is contributing more than $3 million to help support gay rights activists, who, in many parts of the world, do their work at great personal risk. Most recently, on her 2012 tour of Africa, Clinton discussed gay rights concerns during talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. She also presented a human rights award to Ugandan activists who fought against an anti-gay bill in the Ugandan parliament that would have further criminalized gay relations, imposing maximum punishments of life imprisonment or execution. Making gay rights such a high priority represents a significant change in the treatment of gay rights issues in U.S. foreign policy between the Bush and Obama administrations.
Whether gay rights will remain a priority of U.S. foreign policy will depend on who is elected this November. A second Obama term would likely continue to emphasize LGBT rights. A Mitt Romney administration, however, might seek to undo the historic work of its immediate predecessor. For one, the Republican presidential nominee does not support Obama’s gayrights-as-foreign-policy initiative. Additionally, about 70 percent of his campaign’s foreign policy advisers are from the Bush years. And finally, it is worth remembering how easy it was recently for Christian conservatives to intimidate Romney into unceremoniously firing one of his foreign policy advisers because he was gay. It is thus hard to imagine that if Romney were to win the presidency, he would allow LGBT rights to remain an integral part of his administration’s foreign policy.
The issue of gay rights as a foreign policy matter is not only new to the United States and the current administration; it is a topic that is new to all members of the international community.
Intrepid foreign affairs correspondents do not report regularly from the front lines of the fight against LGBT human rights abuses; the Security Council has never held a meeting on the issue; and an article on gay rights advocacy as foreign policy has never appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs. As such, some may be tempted to dismiss the routine abuse, killing, and discrimination perpetuated against LGBT people every day in many distant corners of the world as not the stuff of serious foreign affairs but rather something of a softer variety. However, that under Obama, the mightiest nation on Earth would make the historic decision to protect the human rights of an invisible minority not only represents a 180-degree shift from the policies of the previous administration but works to disabuse people of the notion that LGBT human rights is not serious foreign affairs. And incorporating the issue into U.S. foreign policy is a good beginning toward creating a world safe for LGBT people everywhere.