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Steve Ralls

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A Mother, Her Son and a Test of America's New Foreign Policy

Posted: 04/13/09 03:25 PM ET

In recent months, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have begun cautiously expressing hope that, in addition to recent, hard won victories here at home, we may be on the verge of a little bit of progress abroad, too.

Our community rightly cheered when the Obama administration recently reversed a Bush administration policy and endorsed a United Nations declaration on protecting the world's LGBT people. And we looked on with admiration and pride again as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that she and President Obama intend to stand against anti-gay animus on the world stage, too. Speaking in March to a group of enthusiastic supporters in Brussels, Clinton told the crowd that "Human rights is and always will be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. In particular, persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously."

The remark, press outlets reported, brought about wild applause and, for perhaps the first time, sent a clear message to foreign leaders that the United States intends to speak out against anti-gay atrocities abroad. It was, to paraphrase Secretary Clinton's famous words as America's First Lady, intended to put the world on notice that we believe "human rights are gays rights, and gay rights are human rights, too."

But, as noble as the sentiment of both actions were, they gave little comfort to Kathy Gilleran, a mother from upstate New York whose son, Aeryn, has been missing in Austria for more than a year and a half. Because, while Kathy would love to believe that a new day has dawned in diplomatic affairs, she continues to struggle in her heroic efforts to learn the truth about her gay son and continues to meet roadblock after roadblock in her quest to uncover the facts about what happened in Vienna.

As we reported last year here at HuffingtonPost, Aeryn Gillern was last seen in October 2007 in Vienna, where he was working with the United Nations International Development Organization, or UNIDO. He disappeared suddenly, without any prior warning, and for no apparent reason. According to his mother, Aeryn seemed happy and content with his life abroad the last time they spoke, just shortly before he vanished, and there were no indications that anything was amiss.

"Aeryn loved the history and the culture [of Vienna], especially the architecture and music," Kathy writes at the website she has set up to honor her son, where she also notes that she often switches, in her writing, between the past and present tense when talking about him. "I think you will find that I switch back and forth because although I believe Aeryn is no longer alive, he is and he was," she says.

And, by all measures, he had much going for him in life. Aeryn was successful in his career, had a loving, supportive mother and was enjoying his life in Austria. And, he was also openly gay, which, as far as Kathy was always concerned, was nothing close to a big deal. But mounting evidence indicates it may be why his disappearance continues to be shrouded in mystery and why, despite numerous efforts, Kathy can't seem to get Austrian officials to take his case seriously.

In fact, Kathy has now flown to Vienna twice since her son vanished, and has implored local investigators to launch a comprehensive investigation into what happened on the night Aeryn disappeared. She has implored the U.S. State Department to intervene and press Austrian officials to do the right thing. And she has even met with members of the Austrian parliament.

And this is what it has gotten her so far:

A statement from investigators in Vienna to the press characterizing Aeryn as "an emotionally unbalanced gay man."

Charges - to his own mother - that Aeryn likely committed suicide because, as a gay man, he was likely HIV-positive and despondent about his health.

Disproven reports that DNA samples were available to investigators.

And a parliamentary inquest that resulted in local police defending their own actions and concluding, after investigating themselves, that they did nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, Aeryn Gillern is still missing and there don't appear to be enough people who are taking it very seriously. And, more and more, it seems likely that the lack of initiative is being driven by an over-abundance of homophobia.

Several people, Kathy Gilleran told me when I spoke with her yesterday, have recently come forward to give her information on other people missing abroad - missing in Vienna, even - whose disappearances have been thoroughly investigated. Those cases, they point out, have warranted the intervention of the U.S. Embassy and the interest of other diplomatic venues and officials.

The only difference between those missing persons and Aeryn Gillern is that Aeryn happened to be gay.

In a letter sent this week to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who represents the Gilleran family in the Senate, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - the only organization, Gilleran says, who has stood by her side throughout the entire ordeal - encouraged the new Senator to push for a full investigation.

"PFLAG has been proud to support Ms. Gilleran in her quest to learn about the details surrounding Aeryn's disappearance, and we support all efforts to discover the details about what happened in Vienna," the organization wrote. "We hope that Congress, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Austria will take the case seriously and explore every viable option for discovering the details about what happened to Aeryn. It is simply unacceptable that Ms. Gilleran has been unable to learn the facts about her son's disappearance and disheartening that Austrian authorities appear not to have taken the case seriously."

Indeed, the case of Aeryn Gillern may be an early test of just how LGBT-inclusive America's new foreign policy will be, and how much diplomatic pressure officials are willing to exert to protect, defend and stand up for LGBT people living - and missing - abroad. Because until the search for Aeryn is taken seriously, we cannot truly say that LGBT equality - and respect for the dignity of LGBT people - is a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

For more information on Aeryn's case, visit www.aeryngillern.com.