Obama administration to push for gay rights overseas

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama has expanded his foreign policy goals to include the promotion of equal legal and social status for gays and lesbians worldwide. The move comes on the heels of a $10,000-per-plate fundraiser the president held last week with gay-rights leaders in New York City.

Under the new policy announced Tuesday, U.S. government officials are directed to lobby foreign governments and voters to win legal rights for gays and homosexuals, welcome their applications for asylum, fund foreign gay-advocacy groups, and even retaliate against groups that mistreat gays and lesbians.

“The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights,” said a Dec. 6 White House memorandum for agency heads.

The announcement follows Obama’s September speech at the United Nations, where he declared that “no country should deny people their rights of free speech and religion … [or] because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.”

Gay advocacy groups welcomed the Obama administration’s announcement. “As Americans, we understand that no one should be made a criminal or subject to violence or even death because of who they are, no matter where they live,” Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “Today’s actions by President Obama make clear that the United States will not turn a blind eye when governments commit or allow abuses to the human rights of LGBT people.”

LGBT advocates have significant political clout in the administration, partly because Obama got roughly 75 percent of their votes in 2008, but also because many wealthy gays donate heavily to his campaign.

With a stalled economy, a $1 trillion annual deficit, real unemployment above 10 percent and the 2012 election 11 months away, Obama is under pressure to pull in every vote and dollar he can find.

If actually implemented, the new policy could complicate Obama’s high-priority diplomatic outreach to the Muslim countries, which opened with the president’s 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt.

Islamic law mandates the execution of homosexuals, and is implemented by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries sharply punish and stigmatize homosexuality, and the growing political power of Islamic groups in Egypt, Turkey, Libya and Tunisia may lead to a wave of criminal punishments and a new flow of refugees into U.S. embassies.

Clinton did push back against likely Islamic opposition. “Gay people are born into and belong in every society around the world,”  she said, including in “all faiths.”

She also compared anti-gay discrimination to honor-killing, widow-burning and female genital mutilation, which are practiced by Arab, African and Indian societies. “No practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us,” she said, without mentioning Islam specifically.

The new diplomatic push comes as Western-oriented modernizers in Arab countries struggle to stay relevant amid big advances by Muslim fundamentalist parties. The hard-liners argue that Western-style liberties and modernity are sinful and will cause social degradation. Their message seems to be influential. For example, the so-called “Facebook liberals” won no seats in last week’s Egyptian elections, while the Islamist fundamentalists won up to 70 percent of the popular vote.

In Geneva, Clinton spoke from behind a podium displaying a sign that read “Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights.” The addition of “dignity” to the equal-rights phrase shows the increased focus by gay advocates on the open-ended goal of winning equal social status for gays — not just equality under law.

Clinton pushed this equal-respect theme in her speech. “My own country’s record on human rights or gay people is far from perfect. … For many, bullying and [social] exclusion are daily occurrences,” she said.

She also derided opponents of new rights for gays and lesbians, including the social conservatives who oppose the idea of expanding the definition of “marriage” to include unions of same-sex couples. They’re on the wrong side of history, the secretary of state declared.

“We would certainly not support any violence against homosexuals, whether by the citizenry or by the government, but… we do not think that homosexual conduct should be established as a human right, either at the international or domestic level,” said Peter Sprigg, a fellow at the Family Research Council.  Social conservatives, including Sprigg, say marriage is needed to bind parents to their children, and that the legalization of marriage for gays would convert it into an institution primarily intended is to raise the social status of gays and lesbians. Advocates of marriage for same-sex couples, he said. believe “the most important thing about marriage is satisfying adults’ desires and rights, instead of meeting children’s needs and rights.”

Obama and Democrats, however, have worked hard to promote the social status of America’s sexual-orientation minorities. Like the members of many other groups, such as married couples, veterans, African-Americans and Latinos, many gays and lesbians tend to support the politicians — including Obama — who boost their social recognition and status.

Tuesday’s announcement also reflects an increased focus on the overseas priorities of gay advocacy groups in the U.S.

On Nov. 29, for example, gay rights lawyers with Lambda Legal and other groups called on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to grant asylum to a transgender Mexican woman with AIDS. “Growing up in Mexico, Karolina Lopez Berera suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her family and police because of her transgender identity… [and] fled to the United States to escape that abuse, and immigration officials concede that she was persecuted,” said Lambda Legal attorney Iván Espinoza-Madrigal.

The Lopez Berera case is significant because it could allow judges to declare a right for many foreign gays, lesbians and transgender people to immigrate and gain residency in the United States.

The White House’s policy also highlights the impact of domestic lobby groups on foreign policy. For example, Obama has resisted calls by social-conservative groups to oppose legal abortion and infanticide overseas, to crack down on international prostitution rings, and to protect Christians facing persecution in Islamic countries, especially in Egypt and Pakistan.

Obama’s new policies are lowering the clout of other groups. For example, on Dec. 5, administration spokesman defended the administration’s ambassador to Belgium, who declared in late November that Israel’s self-defense efforts are largely responsible for Muslims’ anti-Semitic attitudes. Those attitudes actually date to the foundation of Islam, 1,400 years ago.

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