Event: The Geopolitics of LGBT Rights
Keynote Speaker: Randy W. Berry, Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons
Guest Speaker: Ambassador Lars Gert Lose of Denmark
ICWA Speaker: Robbie Corey Boulet, ICWA Fellow in West Africa, 2014-2016
Partner Organizations: Johns Hopkins SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations; Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Event Report by Robbie Corey-Boulet, ICWA Fellow
Last December, the New York Times ran a front-page article that caught Nigerian and international activists by surprise. It blamed the 2014 passage of Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act — a measure that made it illegal for groups promoting the human rights of sexual minorities even to organize meetings — in part on U.S. government support for LGBT rights globally. And it claimed, incorrectly, that the U.S. had spent more than $700 million in support to gay rights groups overseas since 2012 (the actual figure, as the article now notes, is “more than $41 million”).
Conservative news outlets in the U.S. picked up the story, running with the $700 million figure. Breitbart News headlined its piece: “Obama’s Push for Gay Rights in Africa Backfires.” All the while, Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist Micheal Ighodaro suspected the New York Times reporter had selectively quoted sources to misrepresent the facts. (In Ighodaro’s view, rather than endanger Nigerian LGBT activists, U.S. support had empowered them while also expanding access to HIV treatment and other resources.) And he grew frustrated when U.S. officials called on activists from Uganda, not Nigeria, to respond to the story.
Ighodaro’s description of this episode foregrounded one of the most important messages to come out of “The Geopolitics of LGBT Rights,” an event hosted on May 20 at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center by the Institute of Current World Affairs (in partnership with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting). Featuring more than 20 activists, researchers and diplomats from five continents, the event offered essential guidance to anyone looking to engage in debates on LGBT rights outside of the U.S.: In all settings, local activists must be consulted, and their feedback must be reflected in policies and interventions.
This point is especially relevant as the global gay rights movement aspires to become more inclusive. Multiple speakers pointed out that, historically, the voices of lesbian, bisexual and transgender populations have been minimized while the voices of men who have sex with men have been amplified. In recent years, this has shifted somewhat as donor countries including the U.S. have increasingly framed their engagement on LGBT issues in terms of human rights.
Yet important barriers remain. Mati Gonzalez Gil, describing challenges facing transgender individuals in Colombia, said they are often ignored during conversations about their own communities because of structural factors including lack of access to education. Gonzalez said this exclusion was harmful and needed to stop. “When you talk to trans leaders in the community, I think they have all of the answers, I think they have all of the knowledge,” Gonzalez said. “So I think we have to stop underestimating community trans leaders and saying, ‘That money, it’s not going to you because you don’t know.’ Like, we’re telling people they don’t know about their own lives.”
Insight from local activists should also shape interventions at the political level. Panelist Maurice Tomlinson from Jamaica contrasted how different world leaders have gone about trying to influence policymakers from countries with anti-gay legislation on the books. He took a dim view of the efforts of former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who famously said foreign aid could be contingent on countries’ adopting more gay-friendly policies, and Canada’s ex-foreign affairs minister John Baird, who confronted Uganda’s parliamentary speaker over that country’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Both approaches triggered backlashes that put sexual minorities at risk, Tomlinson said.
U.S. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, benefited from his government’s consultations with local activists prior to his visit to Jamaica in April 2015. Tomlinson said those activists encouraged Obama to “sell the positives of inclusion” while engaging as equals with local leaders. “They may be bastards,” he said, “but they are our bastards.” The result, Tomlinson said, was that Obama could make his argument for nondiscrimination without strongly alienating the activists and politicians who have the power to make that vision a reality.
The opening round of speakers made clear that diplomats are also eager to participate in these discussions. After welcoming remarks by ICWA Executive Director Edward Joseph, András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S., introduced Ambassadors for Equality, an initiative bringing together 50 ambassadors who signed on to a statement expressing support for equality for LGBT persons. He also asked another diplomat, Lars Gert Lose, Denmark’s ambassador to the U.S., to sign the document. In his remarks, Lose touted Denmark’s record as a pioneer in championing LGBT human rights while reiterating the country’s commitment to try to help expand those rights as widely as possible. The keynote address was delivered by Randy Berry, the U.S.’s first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons. Reflecting on his first year in the position, Berry said he had been “particularly happy” to see progress not just in North America and Western Europe but also in Latin America and other regions that are not always widely associated with progressive policies concerning sexual minorities. He said the U.S. would continue to push a “patient, rational, constructive conversation” while redoubling efforts to combat violence against transgender individuals and to engage with the business community.
What would also be helpful, Tomlinson and other speakers said, would be for global powers to acknowledge their own checkered records on the treatment of sexual minorities. Tushar Malik, an LGBT rights activist from India who focuses on youth, said that, before preaching tolerance and demanding decriminalization, ex-colonial powers should also address their roles in promoting homophobia. In India, he said, British rule had wiped out a tradition of tolerance and implanted anti-gay attitudes that persist today.
“Until today, there is no owning. There is no ownership of what these colonial powers did to us. But there’s this continuous, ‘You must change your laws, you are regressive, and you need to come to the better side of the world,’ which is why it is seen as neocolonialism,” Malik said. “Instead, a simple apology would’ve worked wonders.”