Editorial Board

U.S. Carries King’s Spirit With Global Push for Gay Rights: View

Even Martin Luther King Jr., the man the U.S. honors today, had his blind spots. The circle of human rights he gave his life to expand didn’t include everyone. Left out, for instance, were gay men and lesbians.

One of King’s most laudable attributes, however, was his ability to evolve and grow, and so we imagine that were he alive today he would endorse the efforts of the Obama administration to help bring basic freedoms and protections to gay people the world over.

According to a recent study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, people in every part of the world experience violence and discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity. Homosexual conduct is illegal in 76 countries and punishable by death in at least five.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has moved to the forefront of efforts to address this problem internationally. Hillary Clinton made history last month by becoming the first secretary of State to make protection of gay rights globally a major component of U.S. foreign policy.

In a Dec. 6 speech in Geneva, Clinton addressed what she rightly called “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time.” Simultaneously forthright and sensitive, she insisted that practices change while acknowledging that attitudes will soften only through respectful dialogue.

Promote and Protect

Clinton’s initiative was twinned with a memo from President Barack Obama directing all U.S. agencies working abroad to promote and protect the rights of gay and transgender people. A $3 million fund was created to support foreign groups working on these issues.

There’s been speculation that, with the presidential election approaching, Obama timed the announcements to appease gay Democrats, who’ve been dissatisfied with his record on these issues. But Clinton was the more likely driver of the policy. Having announced she won’t serve as secretary of State in a second Obama term, she is said to be eager to establish her legacy with ground-breaking initiatives.

As Clinton herself noted, fighting this problem is daunting in part because waging the battle can make it worse. For instance, African officials who claim homosexuality is a Western import that needs to be eliminated from their countries may seize upon the U.S. initiative as proof.

To mitigate that risk, the U.S. should link its efforts when possible to those of gay-rights-friendly non-Western countries such as Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa. Because some of the worst abuses are in sub-Saharan Africa, having at least one more champion there would be valuable. Rwanda is worth nurturing as a potential partner; during a 2010 UN debate, its representative prominently opposed a proposal to remove gay men and lesbians from a resolution protecting individuals from extrajudicial execution.

The State Department is preparing a toolkit to help guide embassy personnel through complex cultural terrain. But there is no substitute for building ties with local groups and seeking advice in advance, as they can best gauge the domestic scene and minimize the chances that an initiative will backfire. Doing so, for instance, might have prevented the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan from hosting a high-profile Pride Celebration in June that led to harassment of the local gay community.

Modest but Meaningful

The $3 million set aside for groups that fight discrimination is a modest but meaningful amount, considering what little money has been invested in such organizations so far. Among worthwhile projects to support are efforts to strengthen the rule of law, tolerance campaigns, police-sensitivity trainings, and scripture discussions among religious leaders who support gay rights and those who don’t.

There will also be moments for well-chosen words by U.S. leaders. In 2010, scandalized Albanians protested after a young man came out of the closet during the local version of the reality program “Big Brother.” The U.S. ambassador helped calm the mood by showing support for the young man in a TV appearance afterward. This tactic was appropriate in Albania, where homophobia is rampant but support for the U.S. is strong.

The defense of gay rights abroad is the latest chapter in the steady advance of U.S. human rights diplomacy since the 1970s, when it first achieved prominence. At home, meanwhile, the Obama administration in the last three years has repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and ordered the Justice Department to stop defending a federal ban on gay marriage. Yet on this day in particular, Americans are reminded that their country’s own journey toward equal rights for all is ongoing. In that spirit, Clinton’s initiative is to be lauded. Carrying it out will call for nuanced acts as well as principled stands.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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