[This post has been updated with video of the US State Department web chat.]
BY ROB SALERNO - The US State Department hosted a live web-chat on LGBT human rights open to journalists from all over the world, and Xtra participated.
Speaking for the US government was Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Rights and
Labor. Baer spoke frankly about the US government's aims and limitations in promoting a queer human rights agenda both abroad and domestically.
I asked Baer to explain what the US government's approach is to its own domestic religious organizations that are supporting efforts to criminalize homosexuality in many countries, particularly Uganda. Does
the US bear any responsibility for these actions? And if so, how can the US
prevent American organizations from undermining queer rights abroad?
Baer's response was measured.
"We wouldn’t – we don’t seek to limit the activities of civil society or
religious groups domestically or internationally, and there are many,
many American groups that do enormously good work around the world. I
know that there are reports of a number of organizations that have been
advocating for laws that have, as their ultimate effect, a limitation on
the human rights not only of LGBT people, but of other people. Because
many times these laws cast a very wide net, and obviously it’s very
important to understand the context in which you’re working in order to
be able to know what kinds of effects your actions will take," he said.
A big focus of questions was the practical steps the US is taking to promote a queer human rights agenda abroad.
Zoryan Kis, from Tochka Opory in Ukraine, asked: "LGBT individuals in Ukraine have no protection against being fired if their sexual orientation or gender identity is discovered. Has the US considered working with American
Chambers of Commerce, the Foreign Commercial Service, or Economic Sections in
Embassies to encourage US firms working abroad, or internations firms in any
country, to adopt LGBT-friendly Human Relations policies?"
"You’ve hit on something that we are in conversations right now about
how best to engage the private sector," Baer said. "The private sector really has an opportunity to
play a role here, and how should we talk to them about that. One of the
reasons that people bring this up, of course, is that in the American
context, it’s a little-known fact, but in the U.S. there is no federal
legislation protecting – right now protecting LGBT people against
discriminatory firing and employment." (Some states and cities have anti-discrimination statues, but most do not.)
"However, the American private
sector has really led the way. And so I believe – I don’t know what the
exact proportion is, but it’s the vast, vast majority of Fortune 500
companies have as a matter of corporate policy nondiscrimination
policies that include LGBT people.
And the private sector has led the way on this, because it makes
sense for business that you don’t want to lose out on any talent for a
silly reason. And so they’ve made their own choices, and I think that
there certainly is an opportunity. It’s probably the case that that
principle applies in other places around the world as well, and so
there’s certainly an opportunity for the private sector to lead in other
places around the world as well," he said.
A major theme of Baer's comments was the need to engage non-state actors on the ground, including businesses and civil society, to build momentum for human rights in places where governments are obstinate against queer human rights.
"If you look back at the progress that we’ve made as a country toward a
more perfect union, toward a country that is more respectful of the
equality of each and every citizen, I think that progress is largely
attributable not – it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the
leadership of those in civil society. Obviously, Dr. King is somebody
who comes to mind, and he was not a government figure, and yet he is
somebody who many of us credit with having shifted the national
conversation in ways that we are all still benefitting from today," Baer said.
A journalist from Suriname wanted to know why gay rights are a priority for the US.
"Human rights are a priority for the U.S. Government. When President
Obama gave the Nobel lecture after he won the Nobel Prize, he talked
about the fact that the only lasting peace would be a peace that was
based on the inherent dignity of every person. And I think that one of
the things that this Administration has recognized is that in many
places around the world, as in our own past and present, LGBT people are
often left out, pushed aside. They don’t have access to social
services. Sometimes they are thrown in jail, sometimes they are even
killed for who they are. And that if we believe that human rights apply
to everyone and that human – that a world that respects human rights is
more likely to be safe, prosperous, and good for all of us, then it
stands to reason that we should be committed to human rights for
everyone," he said.
On the touchy situation in Russia, where local governments in some cities and regions have taken steps to make it illegal to promote homosexuality, Baer spoke forcefully but tactfully.
"The situation in Russia is obviously very difficult, and we are well
aware of that," he said. "There are many places
where LGBT is not called out as a particular vulnerable group that needs
protection, and in those cases – and indeed, in the U.S. hate crimes
law has been a recent innovation and in the last few years. And so I
think where there isn’t specific protection in the law, you have to rely
on the general protections that apply to everyone. Now, I understand
that in various contexts even those protections are not firm enough
supports and that they are unevenly applied and often discriminatorily
applied. And that is a real challenge. I think as much as possible,
appealing to general protections of freedom of expression or freedom of
association is obviously the legal route that is available.
"Now, you also raise the worrying trend, which we’ve seen not only in
Russia but in other places around the world, of trying to limit speech
as a way of trying to curtail various forms of citizen participation in
government or citizen activism. And I think one of the things that
really needs to be highlighted about these kinds of laws, the laws that
say you can’t talk about homosexuality, is that they’re not just a
limitation of speech for LGBT people, they’re a limitation of speech for
all Russians or all people, all citizens of whatever states in which
they might be – or municipalities in which they might be considered. And
so they are a violation of international standards of freedom of
expression, and we should argue against them not because we’re seeking
to protect one particular community but because we’re seeking to protect
that standard of freedom of expression for everyone."
Watch the video above or read the transcript here