The U.S. administration has put equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people on a stronger footing, including in its global human rights policy.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month has just been celebrated in June, in the United States and around the world. This milestone, and the principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that America recently celebrated on our Independence Day, July 4, bring me to reflect on how much has changed since Pride Month in June 2009.
I was proud and moved to watch a public White House ceremony on June 22, 2010 that included lesbian and gay White House officials, at which President Barack Obama announced that same-sex partners of U.S. Federal Government employees would receive the same benefits and protections given to opposite-sex spouses. President Obama reiterated his determination to eliminate the “Don't ask, don't tell” policy, in place for nearly 20 years, which bars openly homosexual or bisexual individuals from serving in the U.S. military. He cited unprecedented support for repeal from the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He noted that the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee has approved repeal, with the full Congress due to vote on the issue soon.
In October 2009, we watched with pride as President Obama signed into law the “Matthew Shephard and James Byrd, Jr. Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.” Shephard was a 21-year old man in Colorado who was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die, for being gay. In June 2010, we joined our transgender friends in welcoming the U.S. Department of State's announcement allowing transgender individuals to receive passports showing their new gender. (In this, we are preceded by the Government of Tamil Nadu, which already issues state ID cards recognising transgender status.)
But of special importance to me, as a gay American representing the U.S. abroad as a diplomat, is that the U.S. Government is integrating equal rights for LGBTs into its foreign policy — as part of its comprehensive human rights agenda. With pride, I watched online a ground-breaking Pride Month ceremony at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on June 22, the first such event attended by a U.S. Secretary of State. Secretary Hillary Clinton reminded the audience that “men and women are harassed, beaten, subjected to sexual violence, even killed, because of who they are and whom they love. Some are driven from their homes or countries, and many who become refugees confront new threats in their countries of asylum. In some places, violence against the LGBT community is permitted by law and inflamed by public calls to violence; in others, it persists insidiously behind closed doors. These dangers are not ‘gay' issues. This is a human rights issue. Let me say today that human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights.”
Secretary Clinton has issued instructions to all U.S. diplomatic missions making clear that rights of LGBT persons are on a par with rights of all other populations. “We are elevating our human rights dialogues with other governments and conducting public diplomacy to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons,” she said. Demonstrating this policy, in the past year the U.S. Government has protested the killing, arbitrary arrest, and abuse of LGBT persons in Iraq, Malawi, and Uganda. President Obama, Secretary Clinton and U.S. diplomats have spoken out against draft legislation in countries that would penalise same-sex relationships, including with the death penalty.
Another milestone was the June 2009 announcement by the State Department that it would extend diplomatic privileges and immunities to the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats assigned to the U.S., and provide benefits to the maximum extent permitted by law to the same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats. Some concrete examples of these new rights and privileges include issuing partners U.S. diplomatic passports; announcement of the partners to, and requesting diplomatic visas from, host governments in countries of assignment; payment of travel to and from the U.S. to posts abroad; and access to U.S. medical facilities abroad. These are the benefits and protections given automatically to the spouses of married employees, and inclusion of same-sex partners removed significant barriers between LGBT employees and the rest of the Foreign Service. The previous discrimination has caused many LGBTs, including ambassadors, to avoid or leave diplomatic service, taking with them valuable experience, skills, and talent.
But real hurdles remain. As President Obama stated upon signing the Hate Crimes Act, in the U.S. alone, “over the past 10 years, there were more than 12,000 reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation alone. And we will never know how many incidents were never reported at all.” The U.S. has no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for employees outside the Federal government workforce. Americans may not petition for immigration of their foreign national same-sex partners. Same-sex partners of Federal government employees still may not enrol in employer-provided health insurance or pension plans.
Some in the U.S. marvel at how quickly discrimination against LGBTs is being dismantled while others are impatient that not enough is happening — fast enough. In such democracies as India and the U.S., social and legal change is incremental and depends on the dedicated efforts of citizens working together. While legislatures, governments, and the courts have played a critical role, the fight for equal rights for all has been led by courageous individuals. The changes we are witnessing today are the result of decades of hard work by many thousands of people through the democratic process. This is grassroots activism, lobbying governments at the local, state, and national levels.
Most powerful has been the simple yet difficult act of “coming out” — LGBT persons revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity to family, friends, neighbours, classmates, employers, and colleagues — even at the risk of losing relationships, jobs, and even their own physical safety. As our President said on June 22, “change never comes — or at least never begins in Washington. It begins with acts of compassion — and sometimes defiance — across America. It begins when ordinary people ... speak out against injustices that have been accepted for too long. And it begins when these impositions of conscience start opening hearts that had been closed, and when we finally see each other's humanity, whatever our differences.”
And as Secretary Clinton said at the State Department on the same day: “We've come such a far distance in our own country, but there are still so many who need the outreach, need the mentoring, need the support, to stand up and be who they are, and then think about people in so many countries where it just seems impossible ... So I hope that each and every one of us will recommit ourselves to building a future in which every person — every single person can live in dignity, free from violence, free to be themselves, free to live up to their God-given potential wherever they live and whoever they are.”
When we do that, then we can truly be proud.
(Bryan Dalton is Acting United States Consul General in Chennai.)