The Obama administration is often criticized for betraying gay rights. Despite having helped repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, critics still charge that the White House continually reneges on its pledge to work hard to end marriage bans and gay bashing. Yet, on another unnoticed front, the administration has actually gone far beyond anything ever promised. The administration is taking steps to establish the first pro-gay foreign policy in the history of the United States.
So far, this foreign policy effort is off to a good start. But unless a more systematic approach is taken, the administration's baby steps will remain just that: a decent impulse with little reach.
Arguably, the administration's first steps have been laudable. In January, President Obama issued a public condemnation of the killing of gay activist David Kato in Uganda and of five members of the LGBT community in Honduras. In reality, Obama is merely treading behind the footsteps of Hillary Clinton, whom the The Advocate, a magazine covering LGBT news recently described as the "fiercest advocate" of gay rights in the administration. In fact, Clinton was the first first lady to march in a gay pride parade eleven years ago. Today, she intends to become the first secretary of state to make the State Department pro-gay.
Clinton's mission is simple: eliminate "violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity" anywhere in the world. She declared this in a speech in June 2010, in which she also called on U.S. ambassadors and foreign governments to join this battle. She even designated staff to work on ways to advance LGBT rights, created funds to help victims of hate crimes abroad, and even came up with a new slogan -- "Human rights are gay rights, and gay rights are human rights," an adaptation of a similar slogan she once used on behalf of woman's rights.
Some of these first steps are beginning to bear fruit. Honduras is a good example. Following a June 2009 coup, the level of drug-related, random and politically motivated violence in Honduras escalated. For Honduran LGBT groups, violence was nothing new, but with this surge in national violence, the number of community victims skyrocketed, with 34 reported killings since the coup. The Western Hemisphere bureau of the State Department encouraged the Honduran government to publicly condemn the violence -- not just violence in general, but the violence against LGBT folks in particular, and even to use the term "hate crime." The department called on President Porfirio Lobo to strengthen the office charged with prosecuting such crimes, and even sent a homicide detective and a prosecutor to help investigate the killings. It is doubtful that without this State Department influence, the government's response, however minor, would have even occurred.
But now that the State Department has offered a mission, a calling, some staffing, and even a campaign slogan, what is still missing is a plan of action. Little at the State Department suggests that much is being done to institutionalize policy. More needs to be done beyond mere exhortations.
Designing an effective and sustainable pro-gay foreign policy is no doubt complex, but four institutions must be prioritized:
1) Police and law enforcements agencies. LGBT people in non-wealthy countries chronically report having unpleasant dealings with the police. Programs need to be created in many countries to stop police abuse of LGBT folks and blindness to issues of homophobia.
2) Ministries of education. Governments abroad should be encouraged to train teachers in secondary and primary schools on how to detect and stop homophobia. And at the university level, where discrimination is often endemic as well, the United States could encourage the Fulbright and other academic exchange programs to make research on sexuality and gender issues a legitimate, fundable topic.
3) The private sector. In the best of cases, firms in developing countries essentially have a "don't ask don't tell" policy toward LGBT issues; in the worst cases, they deliberately discriminate in the hiring and promotion of their staff (and often, in the selling of their products and services). Discriminatory firms abroad, like discriminatory firms in the United States, need to learn what some pro-gay firms in the United States have experienced: openness and diversity at the workplace encourages more employee productivity and loyalty to team efforts than does promoting standardized behaviors among employees.
4) The World Bank. The United States ought to work with its partners in the World Bank to develop funding opportunities for innovative pro-LGBT initiatives. Some of this funding already occurs indirectly through some health programs, but the language could be more explicitly pro-gay. This could incentivize local actors to generate their ideas and apply for funding.
More importantly, the United States should avoid a mistake it commonly makes in efforts to promote values abroad: sounding too moralistic. In the past, many campaigns to promote democracy tended to come with messages that sounded like, "you need to be like us." The problem is that many times the United States proved to have imperfect records on democracy, leading to credible accusations hypocrisy. Rather than adopting a "be-like-us" tone, the United States should adopt a "you-are-us" message. The United States should recognize that it too faces complex problems with homophobia, that it doesn't always do the right things, that many of our institutions don't live up to standards, and that we often implement the wrong polices. By stressing the equality of challenges that all nations face (homophobia), rather than the dissimilar outcomes that might separate us, the United States may find that its new pro-gay foreign policy may end up resonating beyond its intended beneficiaries.