“Being gay is not a Western invention, it is a human reality.” So declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday speaking to an audience of diplomats including representatives of African and Arab states in which homosexuality is widely criminalized, violence against gays is openly encouraged, and brutality often goes unpoliced.
“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Clinton said. “It should never be a crime to be gay.”
For the first time in U.S. history protecting and promoting the civil rights of gays will become part of the litmus test used in determining who receives foreign aid. In a bold move, President Obama directed the State Department to ensure U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance helps to promote protections and ensure dignity in the lives of gay people abroad.
Third world nations, many on the African continent, will be forced to consider the consequences of promoting homophobic legislation or turning a blind eye to civil rights abuses against homosexuals and transgendered people.
The White House initiative will certainly have unintended consequences for poorer African countries like Nigeria, where just last week the Senate passed ‘The Prohibition of Same Sex Marriage Bill’ — imposing a penalty of up to 14 years in jail for same-sex couples entering into either marriage or cohabitation. Associates of homosexuals — friends and family — who are known to witness or abet such relationships will also be prosecuted. Homosexual acts were already illegal in Nigeria, ironically first implemented by British colonialists, but lawmakers decided to fortify already harsh codes.
Senator Ahmed Lawan, in an interview with Britain’s BBC claimed, “Should we allow for indiscriminate same-sex marriage, very soon the population of this world would diminish.” Sadly, Lawan represents the more liberal voices among Nigeria’s political classes. During the debate over the terms of the new bill one northern politician suggested the penalty should be death. For a country almost evenly divided between conservatives Muslims and Christians, there is a willing audience for such stark discrimination.
And Nigeria is only the latest African nation to move for stricter penal codes condemning homosexuality, following Uganda, Mauritania, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and the Sudan. And the Muslim states of North Africa and the Middle East almost universally have laws prohibiting same-sex relations.
Uganda in particular received international attention after its proposal of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, which sought death by execution for repeat offenders. Last year, David Kato, the most prominent Ugandan gay civil rights activist, was found bludgeoned to death, after being featured in a local newspaper along with 100 other people known or suspected of being gay, under the title “Hang Them.”
At first the incident was dismissed by police authorities as a simple robbery-gone-awry, but for the international community Kato’s fate provided an explicit example of the terror implicit in the homophobic abuse experienced by thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who openly, or secretly, identity as gay.
The proposed legislation in Uganda was actually inspired by American evangelical Christians, and the decision to introduce the bill came after a two-day conference at which American Christians asserted that homosexuality was a direct threat to the cohesion of African families.
It is curious how American evangelicals, who claim to be agents of the universal benevolence of Jesus Christ, can see the love of free-thinking human beings as a greater threat to Africa’s future than endemic poverty, famine and HIV.
It is equally worrying that African political leaders are more concerned with passing laws to condemn their own citizens by regulating affairs of the heart, instead of addressing the pressing needs of a citizenry still plagued by century old effects of the rape and pillage of their land, people and resources.
Secretary Clinton admitted that the United States had not always had a progressive history on the rights of lesbians and gays. She went so far as to compare the evolution of gay rights with the history of discrimination based on race. But as she articulated President Obama’s new approach it became apparent that the tone of this White House was a clear departure from the rhetoric and stance of previous administrations, and diametrically different from the conventional wisdom being espoused by a neo-conservative, Republican establishment.
The GOP, which has been consistently anti-gay rights and anti-gay marriage, has been so while seeking to hide behind a veil of family values. But what is love if not the definitive foundation of family?So confused is the Republican message that their most inarticulate spokesperson, Rick Perry, the Texas governor and flailing presidential contender, responded to President Obama and Secretary Clinton with a statement decrying the “deeply objectionable” gay “lifestyle”.
Perry, like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum identifies as born-again Christian – a loyal supporter base of the Republican Primary voter block — and Perry even launched his presidential bid after a Houston prayer rally which drew massive media attention. “This is just the most recent example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country,” Perry said in his statement. “This administration’s war on traditional American values must stop.”
From every vantage Rick Perry used this message as a political opportunity to garner attention for a struggling campaign, but there is no doubt that the message itself resonates with many Americans who see religion having a role in the civil and political discourse. Despite the Founding Fathers’ explicit insistence on a constitutional separation of church and state, Judeo-Christian values — especially those which govern male and female roles and definitions of family — have dominated the socio-political landscape throughout our nation’s history.
Even today, with the rise of the Tea Party Caucus and GOP Congressional control, there are resurgent attacks on women’s reproductive rights, all in the name of faith, God and family.
President Obama has chosen a different path: redefining what constitutes acceptable, political statecraft. By insisting that gay rights and human rights be treated equally and interchangeably, he is once again fulfilling a campaign promise to the gay and lesbian supporters who enthusiastically rallied behind his 2008 presidential bid.
Already Obama’s White House has delivered on the repeal of the U.S. military’s anti-gay ban, DADT, and issued a directive for Eric Holder’s Justice Department to cease defending the anti-gay marriage bill known as DOMA.
Hillary Clinton boldly declared, “It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”
The Secretary spoke of the harsh realities many people are forced to endure, from targeted killings of gays, “corrective rape” of lesbians in more liberal countries like South Africa, and genital mutilation of young girls in Somalia and Sierra Leone.
The presidential directive applies to all U.S. agencies, including the Departments of State, Treasury Defense and Homeland Security. And although the Secretary did not point to individual countries, the United Nations produces annual reports which have documented the abuse of women and gays throughout Africa and the Middle East, including nations like Saudi Arabia, a strong U.S. ally, but a nation in which same-sex relations is punishable by death.
The new approach will certainly have its challenges and already has found its critics. But the truth is simple and undeniable. And as the United States continues to police human rights abroad, in the name of democracy and diplomacy, President Obama has chosen to apply those standards indiscriminately.
This is both an opportunity and a challenge for Americans who like to live in their Ivy Tower of Freedom, while engaging in the very vices they purport to condemn. In particular, this forces conservatives to hold a mirror to their rhetoric of ‘family values’, by respecting the values of others.
As Secretary Clinton explained yesterday when comparing violence against gays to antiquated practices of violence against women, “Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition, but violence…isn’t cultural; it’s criminal.”