Gay Rights Are Human Rights

Before I begin this post, I suggest to that you watch Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day speech to the United Nations in Geneva on December 6, 2011.  (Transcript here.)

The die is cast.

LGBT activists have had an often tense relationship with the Obama Administration dating back to before his inauguration.  Truth be told, there is some justification for the activists’ mistrust.  When handed a friendly Congress, the only friendly Congress this or any other Democratic Administration will have for at least another generation, the Obama Administration spent no political capital whatsoever on gay rights legislation.  Congress passed one law, the Matthew Shepard Act, and that came via the back door, attached as a rider to a National Defense Authorization Bill.  Furthermore, the Matthew Shepard Act came entirely from Congressional Democrats, and there were even rumors (unfounded rumors I hasten to add) that the White House was displeased that Congressional Democrats got the law passed.

The truth is that the Matthew Shepard Act, the first pro-LGBT legislation ever passed by the federal government, was the very least of what Congress could have done.  Far more important legislation which include the repeals of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, benefits for the same-sex partners of federal employees, and immigration reform recognizing same-sex marriages were never touched upon for better part of two years.  Coupled with Obama’s disappointing public stance on same-sex marriage (not for it, a state issue, he’s “evolving”), LGBT activists began to despair, and that despair turned to rage.

Then came the 2010 elections and the understanding that no pro-LGBT legislation would make it through Congress.  There came real pressure to overturn DADT before the Republicans took over the House.  Lo and behold, after furious 11th hour maneuvering, DADT was finally overturned, consigned to the dustbin of history.  The military is now totally integrated, and there are no problems.  (There are those however, who cannot let it go.)

Since the end of DADT nothing much has happened, or that is how the narrative goes.  It is not exactly accurate, because while the Congressional statute is the strongest form of legislation there are other ways to make law.  The President is the leader of the country and the nominal head of his party, but the truth is that Representatives and Senators do not answer to him; he is not their boss.  This is especially true for Democrats who are harder to keep in line than Republicans because there is a larger ideological variety among members (that Nancy Pelosi did such a good job of it for four years is why she was such an effective leader).  The President is the boss of the Executive Branch alone.

That is not insignificant power.  The Congressional statute is far stronger because President-made law (Executive Orders, memos, etc.) can change from administration to administration depending on the man in charge, or even if the President were to change his mind.  Nevertheless, unlike a statute, which requires Congress to act– and which is becoming less and less likely to get passed as Congress falls further and further into the mire–President-made law is immediate, effective, and depends upon only one person.  And the Executive Branch, in essence the entirety of the administrative state, affects our day-to-day lives and sometimes the lives of people around the world, Presidential orders are extremely important.

It is a power that the Obama Administration has put to great effect with regard to LGBT rights.  Some of his orders have been merely symbolic, such as including same-sex families in the White House Easter Egg Roll, or recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month.  Other orders have had real significance: (1) all hospitals that accept Medicare and Medicaid (which is almost all if not all of them) to allow same-sex partners the same visitation and proxy rights that straight couples have; and (2) an end to the US travel ban of people infected with HIV.  And then there was one extremely momentous order, the President’s command to the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court because the Administration’s position is that DOMA is unconstitutional.  As a personal matter, the President has made anti-bullying a priority of his Administration; he even personally recorded an It Gets Better video.

That was just inside the United States.  Another thing which the Obama Administration did, and which did not get nearly as much credit as it deserved, was leading (and winning) the fight which led the United Nations to adopt a resolution applying human rights protections and principles to sexual orientation and gender identity.  There was some major behind-the-scenes drama to produce what at the time seemed like merely symbolically significant window dressing.

Yesterday came the double-whammy from the Obama Administration following up on its UN victory.  First the President sent a memo out instructing the federal agencies to weigh how nations treat their LGBT population in the decision on how to leverage foreign aid.  It’s not altogether clear what the Administration will do.  There are mixed messages, none of which are as clear as UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s unambiguous statement about withholding aid from nations that criminalize same-sex relationships and activity.

Hours after the memo was released, Secretary Clinton gave what may well be the most important speech in LGBT history, which I included at the top of this post.  “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”  While admitting that the US is far from perfect when it comes to LGBT equality, Clinton made clear that she and the Obama Administration as a whole are strong allies of LGBT populations around the world, especially in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana–places where LGBT people are imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for the crime of existing.  (The State Department has been very vocal of late about its LGBT concerns, going so far as to condemn a severely draconian anti-gay law proposed in St. Petersburg.  This was before the recent election showed up Russia to be the Potemkin democracy we all knew it to be.)  Secretary Clinton described affirmative (non-punitive) steps that the US will take to help.  Her speech was greeted by a standing ovation.  Those at whom her remarks were aimed left.  The message was clear; the United States considers LGBT discrimination as bad as any other kind of discrimination.

No doubt President Obama and Secretary Clinton offer a sincere if somewhat nebulous vision.  Secretary Clinton detailed a 3 million dollars global fund to help LGBT populations around the world.  Frankly, that is not a lot of money.  But it is something. Symbolically it is very important, and one suspects (hopes?) that this is just the beginning.  It’s easy enough to accuse the US and the UK of imperialist behavior, which no doubt the guilty nations are doing, but all money comes with strings.  If those nations don’t want the money, no one is forcing them to accept it.  If you want to hear the song, you have to pay the piper.

Immediately afterwards, the usual suspects ranted and raved about the Obama’s memo and Clinton’s speech.  And the loudest criticism came from the Republican candidates for President.  (As though the US had never intervened with another country’s internal politics before.)  Rick Perry and Rick Santorum in particular have taken great pains to voice their displeasure, or in reality pander to the evangelical right.  Santorum–who only seems to be noticed by an LGBT press that despises him–accused Obama of “promoting special rights for gays” as though the right to not be tortured, imprisoned, or executed is a special right.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Santorum, Perry, and the rest as bigots, which they no doubt are (Santorum in particular although he seems not to understand why gay people hate him so much), but it is important to understand that they are trying to appeal to an audience of conservative, evangelical Christians who hate gay people, want to roll back the clock to the 1950’s, and have been a formidable voting bloc.  The same evangelical groups that oppose LGBT rights have also invested heavily in poor African nations such as Uganda, and have put forward a vociferous anti-gay agenda.  It is the ideal that these Christian groups want for the United States, but are prevented by law.  Now these same groups are seeing that work opposed by their government that has largely ignored them and in some cases abetted them.  Being unable to inflict their pernicious vision of society in this country or in any other is what these groups, the Republican base, and Fox News really mean when they talk about anti-Christianity or a war on religion.

But mark your calendars.   Hillary Clinton’s speech marks an important turning point in LGBT history, the day when the fight against worldwide homophobia began in earnest.  In 50 years time, December 6, 2011 will be as important as the anniversary of the Stonewall riots are now.


The United Nations, African Politics, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Dearest readers, I admit up front that this post is half-baked and thematically inconsistent.  I apologize for that, but it comes from a bunch of ideas that have been floating in my head and that seem connected, although I am not sure how.  For those of you who wanted another football post, there are always more coming soon.  For those of you who are sick of football, enjoy.

To my shock, the United Nations Human Rights Council finally adopted a resolution that applies human rights principles and protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.  This is a shocking first for the UN, and particularly for the ironically named Human Rights Council (can such a body truly cares about human rights includes members such as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, and, until recently, Libya?)  This is a UN resolution so it is essentially meaningless except in symbolism.  Nevertheless, the votes were fascinating, and telling about LGBT rights and a changing world.

This particular resolution was spearheaded by South Africa, and was supported by 22 other countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.  (In 2003, Brazil was the first nation to put forward such a resolution.)

Opposed to the resolutions were the following members: Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Russia, and Moldova.

Zambia, Burkina Faso, and China abstained, Kyrgyzstan was absent, and Libya had been suspended for obvious reasons.

The resolution was co-sponsored by the following countries:  Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Uruguay.

There is an immediately obvious divide primarily between a Middle East/Africa/predominantly Islamic countries bloc and everyone else.  It’s not quite that universal or simple though.  Russia and Moldova are really the lone Western who voted against the resolution.  Noticeably, historically Catholic countries favored the resolution (despite the Church’s opposition to all things LGBT.)  Latin America, for example, really came through, but then again Latin American governments are trending  progressive on LGBT issues, particularly Argentina and Uruguay.  The support even extended into the East despite the opposition of the Middle East.  All the non-Muslim Asian countries (save China) voted in favor of the resolution.  And even China’s abstention is cause for curiosity.

China usually votes against LGBT protections; this abstention is something of a shock.  The real surprises however, were Mauritius, Zambia, and Burkina Faso.  For years, the whole of Africa has fallen into line, and, led by Nigeria, has voted as a bloc against LGBT rights.  That two of those nations, Burkina Faso (predominantly Muslim) and Zambia (predominantly Christian) abstained from the vote is in itself jaw-dropping.  That Mauritius actually voted in favor of the resolution is a minor miracle.  Mauritius is a tiny island country near Madagascar.  Consensual homosexuality is still illegal there.  I am curious to know above all else why exactly Mauritius voted as it did.

In my search for the answer, an answer I still do not know, I read about the government of Mauritius.  Unlike most of Africa, Mauritius has a functioning democracy with peaceful transitions of power.  It rates at the top of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which probably has something to do with why Mauritius voted in favor of the UN resolution.  The better a nation’s human rights record, the more likely it was to vote in favor of the resolution.


The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is basically what it sounds like: it rates how well the African nations are governed.  A little background is in order.  The Index, which is researched and published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, was intended as a way for Africans to monitor how good their governments are.  The Foundation was founded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire (he made his fortune through telecommunications and founded Celtel before selling it for over $3 billion), who is determined to help the Africa clean itself up, and join the world community as an equal partner.  The Foundation awards the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a prize given to African leaders who, during the course of their reign, significantly improve their countries and then (and this is key) allow the democratic process to work by peacefully transferring power to their successors.  The prize is $5 million and then $200,000 a year for the rest of the former leader’s life.  (This has led critics to call the prize a bribe, and there is an element of truth in that.  There are legitimate questions about the purpose and efficacy of the Ibrahim Prize.)  The obvious model for such a leader is Nelson Mandela, although the Prize began well after the Great Man stepped down.  The New Yorker published a fascinating profile (subscription required) of Mo Ibrahim this past March, and I encourage you to read it if you can.

The 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance lists the top five nations as Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde, and South Africa.  It is probably not coincidence that three of the top five nations are islands, and thus less likely to be unsettled by disturbances in neighboring countries.  (Not all islands scored well though.  Madagascar and Comoros are in the bottom half.)  South Africa, for its many faults, has had a relatively stable government since the fall of the apartheid regime, and Botswana has been a model of good governance and economic growth for decades.  Unsurprisingly, one of the (only two) recipients of the Ibrahim Prize was Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana.  The prize was not awarded in either 2009 or 2010, which is a rather telling and sad fact about governance in a continent of over 50 nations.

Admittedly, using the Ibrahim Index is a very faulty of determining whether a nation is well-governed.  The criteria are somewhat suspect, and good governance is a subjective and nebulous concept, more ideal than quantifiable.  Good governance is also, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder.  The brilliant Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade sings a song excoriating the corruption and the failed promises of her nation’s democracy yet the Ibrahim Index ranks Cape Verde near the top.  Sometimes, the Ibrahim Index just quantifies the obvious.  Things in Somalia are very, very bad, which is why it is at the bottom of the list with 8 points out of a total 100.  In comparison, the next worst governed country is Chad with 31 points.  This is pretty compelling numerical evidence that Somalia is indeed hell on Earth.


In the New Yorker profile of Ibrahim, there was a question of who the next possible Ibrahim Prize winner would be, and sadly there were no contenders on the immediate horizon.  The one possibility is the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Johnson Sirleaf is an interesting case.  A former World Bank economist, she is the first woman to be elected the head of an African state, and thus far the only one.  She is extremely popular abroad, although I am not a Liberian and cannot vouch for her popularity at home.  Supposedly, she is not quite so loved in her own country.  (The true test will be whether she is reelected this fall.)  Her presidency followed the horrific and destructive dictatorships of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor and years of civil war, which included, among other horrors, the use of children as soldiers.

Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberia is not exactly a success story.  There are many, many problems, and the country has a very long way to go.  To her credit, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledges this.  The most recent Ibrahim Index tells an interesting story though.  Liberia is ranked 36th of 53, but that number alone is deceiving.  Liberia’s score have gone up significantly between 2004-05 and 2008-09.  Scores in specific areas have also significantly improved.  These areas include Safety and Rule of Law, Participation and Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity (where the score is still near the bottom), and even a bit in Human Development (health and social services), where  Liberia is woefully lacking.

None of this is to say that Liberia is good.  The Index hints however, that Liberia is on the right track.  Nevertheless, that statement is highly debatable.  Charges of corruption have been thrown at Johnson Sirleaf and her government.  In fairness, it is difficult to discern what is truth and what is propaganda.

I would like to think that Johnson Sirleaf is succeeding, if for no other reason than because the modern world has yet to produce a truly great female leader (although British Tories would probably disagree with my assessment.)  More importantly, the people of Liberia have suffered tremendously, and only a great leader can even start to turn around their nation.  It may well be impossible for one person to fix horrors that evolved over decades.  But a great leader may be able to stem the tide and put the nation on the right path.  Time will tell if that person is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.