On February 24, the State Department released its 2008 report on human rights abuses around the world. There wasn't much fanfare to the release, nor, in fact, much media coverage the next day. Murder, rape, arbitrary arrest and extortion - move along, folks, nothing here to see....
The Council for Global Equality pored through the report, taking note of how the world is treating LGBT brethren around the world. (We've compiled a digest on our website, GlobalEquality.org.) Certainly there's a strong sense of déjà vu. In many countries, gay and transgender people have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, prison abuse, and even murder. In others, housing and health care can be at issue, as are basic freedoms of assembly and association. Some government officials are cited for hate speech; in some countries, LGBT people have been forced to flee their homes. And laws in many countries are in serious need of revision, creating a climate in which LGBT people face uncertain futures.
The report covers human rights violations observed in George Bush's last year in office, of course - so thank God it doesn't rate our own country's performance! The world won't easily forget how, in the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush/Cheney Administration turned its back on crucial international human rights conventions - and on citizens' rights that are at the heart of who we are as an American people. Though I understand President Obama's interest in a forward-looking agenda, surely we need a serious examination of the erosions of liberty that occurred on Bush's watch, not only to guard against their repeat, but to restore our human rights leadership in the eyes of our foreign partners.
In the meantime, we're left with a world of LGBT woes, sketched in sad detail by our embassies abroad. The question here, too, is how the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders will respond.
Many of us worked for Obama's election precisely because we want to see real policy changes. For me, human and civil rights - both generally and for LGBT people - rank near the top of the list. During the campaign, Obama pledged that the treatment of LGBT individuals must be "...part and parcel of any conversation we have about human rights." And only last week Hillary Clinton told a European Parliament gathering that "....persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously."
Good signs, both. Now let's see concrete action.
Where this year's report mentions either LGBT abuses by government security forces, or legal discrimination against LGBT individuals, I want our embassies to be instructed to engage immediately with host foreign officials, at senior levels, to seek recourse.
I want each of those embassies to be instructed by Washington to draft country strategies aimed at strengthening LGBT groups as part of civil society, repealing or revising discriminatory laws, and reducing societal discrimination.
I want USAID to consider augmenting or redirecting program funds for countries that are willing to make equality a real priority. And for countries that refuse this goal, I want our bilateral assistance levels to be reviewed.
Finally, I want President Obama to put forth a real equality agenda at home - one based on principle, not dribbled out bill-by-bill, one congressional hearing per year. The time for incremental change is long over. Why not an LGBT civil rights bill? It's time to recommit our country to its founding principles, principles that you and I were taught as children: equality, justice, and fairness.