New House Bill Seeks To Make LGBT Rights Abroad A State Department Priority

07/16/2014 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

WASHINGTON -- A bill introduced in the House of Representatives Wednesday would bolster the State Department's ability to fight discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals abroad, its bipartisan sponsors say.

The bill would direct the department to make LGBT rights a foreign policy priority, develop a strategy to prevent LGBT discrimination and appoint a special envoy to handle those efforts.

The envoy would help coordinate activities between the State Department and other governments, non-governmental organizations and -- if appropriate -- the private sector to address LGBT discrimination globally, Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), the bill's primary sponsor, told The Huffington Post.

The legislation would also require the State Department to continue addressing LGBT human rights violations in its annual Report on Human Rights.

The department has increasingly turned its attention to LGBT rights under President Barack Obama. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in which she linked the fight for LGBT rights around the world to other historic human rights struggles.

Tierney said that harrowing stories of discrimination in Russia, Uganda and elsewhere helped inspire the bill, as did a conversation with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Markey has sponsored a similar bill in the Senate and was looking for someone to introduce companion legislation in the House.

The State Department did not immediately return a request for comment.

Unlike Markey's bill, Tierney's has bipartisan support: Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) have signed on as co-sponsors. Hanna has supported LGBT rights before -- he signed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples -- while Gibson is a newer arrival to the cause. In the previous Congress, the Human Rights Campaign gave Gibson a zero percent legislative rating. But last year, he announced he was supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would institute federal workplace protections for LGBT Americans.

"On our best day, other countries want to be like us, and for that reason it is crucial that we lead by example with our founding principles of human dignity, freedom, and equal protection," Gibson said in a statement.

Tierney said he was pleased to be joined by his colleagues from the other side of the aisle. "We're encouraged by the notion that people think it's time we had a strategy, we had a plan, and we worked internationally to start it moving in the same direction we're moving so well in in this country," he said.

Both Tierney and Gibson are facing openly gay challengers this election cycle.

As public approval in the U.S. has shifted in favor of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, some in the LGBT rights movement have turned their attention abroad, where the situation is often more dire. Russia, for example, drew international condemnation last year over a new law prohibiting pro-LGBT "propaganda," which advocates said would make it difficult for anyone to live as an openly LGBT person. The Human Rights Campaign, along with several other LGBT and human rights groups, has endorsed the congressional bill.

Last year, the Human Rights Campaign made waves in some circles when it announced that it was launching its own division devoted entirely to issues abroad. The funding of the program was of concern to some commentators: It was backed by foundations linked to hedge fund billionaires Daniel Loeb and Paul Singer. The latter, a prominent GOP donor and supporter of gay rights, made a small part of his fortune through "vulture funds," which profit by purchasing the debt of financially troubled countries and then going to court to extract repayment.

Some also expressed fears that the Human Rights Campaign's effort could bring unwanted attention and perceived U.S. ties to local advocates in countries where being gay can put someone in danger -- a criticism that Tierney said should not be applied to his bill.

"We're not getting involved in other countries. We're getting involved in our State Department -- in our diplomatic approach to things. We expect that it's going to be handled by seasoned and trained diplomats, who are going to make sure that they deal with this the appropriate way," Tierney said.

"But we want them to be able to have a coordinated effort across our government," he said, "so that when we set foreign policy goals and we have conversations from our State Department to people in other countries, they know that this is a serious priority with us."

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