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U.S. Looking to Make LGBT Rights a Foreign Policy Priority

WASHINGTON, Jun 18 2014 (IPS) - New legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress that would make the rights of sexual minorities a foreign policy priority for the United States.

The bill, called the International Human Rights Defense Act, would direct U.S. diplomats to devise a global strategy for preventing and responding to violence against the LGBT community. It would also create a special envoy within the U.S. State Department who would be tasked with coordinating related policies across the U.S. federal government.

“For the United States to hold true to our commitment to defending the human rights of all people around the world, we must stand with the LGBT community in their struggle for recognition and equality everywhere,” Senator Ed Markey, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement.

Currently, having homosexual relations is illegal in 77 countries. In another five countries, simply being identified as a sexual minority is punishable by death.

The issue came into sharp international focus in February, when Uganda made “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life in prison, enacting a watered-down version of a law first proposed in 2009 despite widespread condemnation by other governments.

“From when the law tabled in 2009 to today, the cases [of people affected] numbers around 100,” Nikki Mawanda, a transgender Uganda LGBT activist, told IPS.

“These cases vary from imprisonment to evictions, death cases … attempted murder, suicide. And right now as I speak there are more than 108 LGBT refugees from Uganda living in Kenya.”

Mawanda spoke during a press call Tuesday sponsored by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a humanitarian group.

As elsewhere, the new Ugandan law could now be impacting on broader public health. Fear of imprisonment is now reportedly preventing many LGBT people from seeking health services in the country, as anyone providing such services to sexual minorities in Uganda is considered guilty.

“There’s 1.5 million LGBT [people] who are documented to be not accessing retro-viral AIDS treatment,” Mawanda says. “Will they stop going to clinics? Will clinics stop being there?”

Mawanda sought asylum in the United States earlier this year. But he said that doing so is not an option for many others, because procuring a visa often requires family ties and sufficient economic status.

Meanwhile, Washington has taken a hard rhetorical line in response to the Ugandan legislation. But many activists feel there has been little substantive impact.

“The U.S. has taken a comprehensive review of the Uganda-U.S. relationship and aid,” Ruth Messenger, AJWS’s president, said Tuesday. “We support the U.S. government for taking a serious look at this and the results of the review should be released soon by the U.S. Department of State.”

Extreme pressure
Even in countries without repressive laws like Uganda’s, psychological and physical violence against LGBT people continues to take place.

“It might surprise some people to hear about the situation in Thailand, thought of as a friendly haven for gay travellers from all over the world. But society is not accepting of gay and LGBT people,” Sattara ‘Tao’ Hattirat, a lesbian Thai activist, said on Tuesday’s call.

“Despite being in the capital city, from a middle-class family, I was made to feel that my sexuality and identity are wrong, that I did something wrong in a past life to deserve this.”

Hittirat said that many sexual minorities in Thailand experience “extreme pressure” within their families, with many being forced to marry. Such a situation, she said, leads to high rates of depression and suicide.

Thus far, the Thai LGBT community has received little assistance from the government. Hittarat says there have been no anti-discrimination laws passed, and warns that the state has little understanding of the concept of a hate crime.

“There are incidents [of hate crimes], but the situation is not well documented,” she told IPS. “There are cases of rape of lesbians, butch lesbians in particular, and cases when families chain their children in the house … Many cases exist but are not publicly reflected in numbers.”

Meanwhile, the recent government coup in Bangkok has only made the situation worse.

“It’s destroying democratic processes to the core,” Hittarat say, “making it impossible for human rights, including LGBT rights, to move forward at this point.”

U.S. protections
Meanwhile, the United States has recently stepped up action on domesticLGBT rights, as well. Just this week, President Barack Obama announced his intention to sign an executive order ending discrimination against LGBT workers by federal contractors, seen by advocates as the most significant such move ever taken by a president.

“It’s been estimated that one in five people in the labour force work for a federal contractor, so there will be some people in all 50 states that will have some protection against discrimination from this executive order,” Ian Thompson, a legislative representative with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a watchdog group, told IPS.

“In over half the country, there are no explicit state-wide protections against LGBT discrimination. That makes an executive order like this all the more important.”

Still, Thompson says, Obama’s executive order does not do away with the need for the U.S. Congress to pass basic civil rights protections for sexual minorities in the United States. Executive orders, after all, can be undone entirely at the whim of a subsequent president.

A 2011 study by the Williams Institute, at the UCLA School of Law, found that one in four LGBT employees in the United States had reported being discriminated against during the previous half decade.

The study found discrimination against transgender people was even higher. Some 78 percent of transgender respondents reported harassment or mistreatment because of their gender identity, while 47 percent said they had been discriminated against in hiring, promotion or job retention.

This discrimination has significant results. Simply in terms of economics, high rates of poverty and unemployment have been documented among the transgender community.

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  • Nicole West-Hayles

    A more inclusive approach would be a charter for adult sexual rights that would include LGBT rights, and anything that consulting adults want to do, etc. We cannot guarantee one right while not guaranteeing others – heterosexual rights, polygamous rights, polyandry rights, etc. Other inequalities will be created.

  • Darex

    God’s wrath will descend on all promoters of same sex marriage. Let them read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible.

  • joe

    Liberals are always harping that we (USA) cannot keep acting as the worlds police force, yet it really all depends on the type of policing your referring to doesn’t it?

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