State Dept Holds Live Chat on Advancing LGBT Rights

Posted on | January 31, 2012 by Lisa Correnti |

Today State Department official Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Baer held a live webchat on foreign policy issues and LGBT. Secretary Baer answered questions on advancing LGBT rights globally addressing; the need to increase protection and prosecution, encouraging state government officials to speak out, offering assistance to gay advocacy groups, and advancing LGBT rights at the U.N. Below is a transcript:

MR. BAER: Great. Thanks so much. Thanks, everybody who’s out there watching. Thanks very much to the watch parties that I know are going on in various embassies around the world – Paramaribo, I heard, and Kyiv and Warsaw. Thanks to the people watching in Geneva and other places around the world, all over Latin America, I’ve heard. So it’s great to be with you this morning.

This is really an opportunity for me to get to follow up and to do some Q&A with you all in the wake of the Secretary’s speech last month in Geneva on December 6th, which was her Human Rights Day speech where she talked about human rights applying to everyone, including LGBT people. That speech was really not a kickoff event but a continuation event, continuing the leadership that the Secretary and President Obama have demonstrated on this issue since the beginning of the Obama Administration and following up on a lot of work that we’ve got underway here at the State Department and at our embassies around the world.

So today, I look forward to the interaction. I look forward to hearing what’s on your mind and doing my best to answer your questions. So let’s just turn to questions.

MS. JENSEN: All right. Our first question comes from Pablo Simonetti: Will the United States encourage other states, as Chile for example, to develop laws that set rules, public policies, and affirmative actions to fight LGBT discrimination?

MR. BAER: I think what the Secretary laid out was that we will support and work with partners, those who are interested in having technical conversations about how you develop laws so that they are inclusive and nondiscriminatory. Yes, absolutely, we’d be happy to engage with partners like Chile and others around the world on developing various kinds of law.

I mean, what we’ve found in the United States is that it has been an ongoing process in making our laws more inclusive on many fronts, but oftentimes it gets down to the nitty-gritty of various regulations about who gets access to certain public housing or how you handle various questions around healthcare or things like that. And so there’s actually an in-depth practical process that has to be undertaken.

Once a legislature or a government decides that they are going to make the law inclusive, there’s an implementation process that has to be undertaken. And we would be happy to work with partners around the world on discussing how we’ve done that and how our Department of Justice enforces nondiscrimination provisions in our law, et cetera, to help make sure that, as much as possible, every person is treated equally under the law.

MS. JENSEN: Great. Just a quick reminder that you can follow us on Twitter using our official handle @statedept, and if you would like to continue this conversation today, you can do so by using the hashtag #Dignity4All. That’s Dignity-the number 4-All.

Our next question comes from Visar Hoti from TV TEMA in Kosovo: Kosovo society is pretty conservative, and although there are no laws forbidding homosexuality, public display of affection between same-sex couples are not accepted as normal, hence the expression or promotion of rights of the LGBT persons are not seen as proper in Kosovo, according to many international human rights watchdogs. What is your experience with conservative societies in promoting the rights of LGBT persons, and what was your approach to help them overcome these cultural barriers or taboo problems in terms of legislation upgrade, institutional capacity building, and awareness raising?

MR. BAER: Thanks very much for that multi-part question. I think that what we’ve found and what many others have found around the world who have been working within their own societies to advocate for tolerance, to advocate for treating everyone equally, is that in many, many places, it requires an ongoing and a long-term conversation. And I think one of the things that I most appreciated about Secretary Clinton’s speech last month was that it really was overall an invitation to a conversation. It was not a lecture; it was an invitation to work through a set of questions that people have.

And the invitation was put out there understanding that, for many people, this is a difficult issue to think through and work through. But it was put out there at the same time with the very clear conviction that all people are people and that being gay doesn’t make you less human and doesn’t make you less entitled to human rights. And so working through these questions is an ongoing process.

I think in terms of what can be done, there’s work to be done from the bottom up in the conversations that we each have with our friends and our associates at work or at our church or synagogue or mosque or wherever we may find ourselves. We can help build cultures of tolerance in everything that we do every day. And there is indeed work that can be done from the top down. Having public figures, whether they be political leaders or celebrities or anybody else who has access to a public platform, having them speak out and articulate a message of equality that is not about anybody being special or having special privileges but is about the fundamental commitment to treat everyone equally and that everybody is equally entitled to dignity, I think that can have a huge impact in every society on both helping others embrace that notion and also reinforcing that notion where it’s already reflected in law and culture.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Katherine Zappone: Sending great appreciation to the President and Secretary of State for their groundbreaking initiative of the USA support of rights of LGBT people throughout the world. Does this represent or reflect any changes in U.S. domestic policy re rights of LGBT people, and will we be able to exchange models of good practice between countries and with the USA as part of this initiative?

MR. BAER: I think that it has developed alongside on a parallel track with a series of changes that have happened domestically, most notably perhaps with the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell legislation, which happened a little over a year ago, which was the legislation that didn’t permit LGBT soldiers from serving openly in our military. So there have been a series of changes. There have been other changes. Secretary Clinton made changes domestically to the State Department in terms of how LGBT employees are treated and how their partners are treated under our employment benefits and things like that. So there have been other changes that have happened for Americans, if you will, that have accompanied the parallel track of our engagement abroad.

And I think that in general, one of the things that we’ve tried to do in our human rights policy and recognizing that human rights is a fundamental plank of U.S. foreign policy is to embrace and acknowledge the fact that we want to lead by example and that what happens here at home reflects on our leadership in the world. And so I think there is a concerted effort across the board to be consistent in our practice and in what we advocate and the principles that we think will undergird a more stable, peaceful, and democratic world.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Shengjyl Osmani from BIRN Kosovo: What are the practices of the USA applicable to other societies towards establishing full rights and a culture of respect and acceptance for the LGBT community?

MR. BAER: I think the practices aren’t unique to – first of all, it’s great that Kosovo is so well represented today. I think the practices that are most applicable to the question of securing equality for LGBT people are not themselves unique to the question of securing equality for LGBT people. I think what we see both in the American context and in many places around the world is that – and one of the things that Secretary Clinton has made a hallmark of her administration – is that having a free and vibrant civil society, a civil society that is allowed to organize citizens around issues, that is allowed to appeal to the government to do better, that is allowed to engage with government and make recommendations about how government can better serve citizens – that that’s really crucial.

And I think 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. And so I think if there’s one principle that we would articulate around the world – and Secretary Clinton talked about this in Krakow in July of 2010 – it’s the need to support civil society and to make sure that laws that attempt to clamp down on civil society or sham trials that try to lock up the leaders of NGOs, that those are rejected, and that people are allowed to express their views and debate them and contribute to a national conversation.

MS. JENSEN: Please note that at this time during the program, you will see our 10 in-language Twitter feeds scrolling across the bottom of your screen. If you’d like to join us, you can do so in-language or you can do it at our @StateDept, our official State Department Twitter feed.

Our next question comes from Gay Center Rome: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that gay rights are human rights. This was a brave statement which challenged the countries in the world where homosexuality is considered as a crime, as well as those, like Italy, where attempts to legislate on these matters is met by strong resistance. What is the U.S. planning to do to promote gay rights around the world?

MR. BAER: We’re – well, first of all, I would say that going back to what the Secretary said, if – your question, “What are we planning to do to promote gay rights around the world,” the first answer is that when we take that on, we define that as promoting human rights for LGBT people, the same human rights that we promote and that Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have seen as a hallmark of our foreign policy for many, many years. And so this is not a – this is not something new in that sense. This is making sure that our approach is inclusive and that we are really focusing, because fundamental to human rights is the idea that each and every person is entitled to them by virtue of being human, that we are indeed widening our focus and making sure that we are including each and every person in that focus, including LGBT people.

In more practical terms, what we’re doing – we’re doing a range of things. We engage diplomatically with partners around the world, in both places where this is a more difficult conversation and places where we’re working with other governments who want to collaborate with us and help to secure rights for everybody around the world. So we have a range of conversations ongoing with other governments at the government-to-government level. We have been very supportive of South Africa’s leadership, particularly in the Human Rights Council, where a resolution was passed last June that the South Africans led on, and was co-sponsored by many others from all regions of the world that condemned violence against LGBT people. So we’ve been working in the UN fora to support that.

And then we’ve been working a lot on the ground, and I think one of the kind of theories of change that we ascribe to is the idea that progress on human rights generally is made from within, and the best thing that we can do often, as a government, is to really focus on supporting those who are making the case for change within their own societies. And sometimes that means shining a spotlight on their work because they can benefit from that, both in terms of getting their message out and also in keeping safe. Sometimes that means just having conversations with them or convening groups at our embassies or going out to meet with them and hear about the challenges that they’re facing so that we can link them up to others who may be able to help. And in many places, we also provide grants that provide technical assistance, that help train people on advocacy, et cetera.

One of the things that I’ve found – and I try to meet with LGBT NGOs around the world when I travel – one of the things that I’ve found is many times, if there are LGBT NGOs that are working on these issues, they are isolated from other human rights NGOs, even in their country. And so one of the things that we’ve been focusing on is: How can we help these well-intentioned human rights defenders who are working on human rights for LGBT people? What kind of training do they need? Do they need help learning how to run an organization? Do they need help learning how to put together a media campaign? Do they need help learning how to document abuses so that they can base their advocacy on factual records?

And so we’re working very hard, and all of our embassies have been instructed to and are doing a great job of following up in local contexts to make sure that we’re in touch with those who are working on advancing human rights for everyone within their own communities.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from a watch party in Suriname: Why are LGBT rights a priority for the U.S. Government?

MR. BAER: I think the answer to that is simply that 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.

And because in many places, LGBT people, like other minority groups, other vulnerable groups, are left out and pushed aside, it makes sense to focus concerted effort on making sure that our human rights policy and that human rights protections around the world include everyone.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Stefano Bolognini: Today, Mrs. Elsa Fornero, Italian minister of welfare and equal opportunities, declared her full commitment to the fight against any discrimination of homosexual and transgender people. In your opinion, and also considering the action of your government on this issue, which steps should be taken by a democratic nation against this kind of discrimination? And as regards to the American Administration, what are the initiatives that you will undertake within the United Nations in order to achieve a full decriminalization of homosexuality throughout the world?

MR. BAER: I haven’t yet seen the minister’s comments, but I think one answer to your question about what can be done is obviously to have ministers make those kinds of public commitments. I think it has a great impact on all of those. Obviously, certainly, when Secretary Clinton says something, I’m listening, and I take that as a signal toward what I should do. So I believe that in other governments as well, when the

the minister talks the people below the minister listen and it changes the way they do their business. And so I think having the minister speak out is a great step. I think there are a range of tools, and oftentimes there are domestic institutions that allow for review, whether that’s through the courts or through nation human rights commissions or through consultations with judicial experts, et cetera.

I think there are a range of ways to review the current domestic law and regulations and to identify areas that may need to be revised. And so I think once there is commitment and political will behind a particular change in policy, then the question becomes largely a practical one of how do you go about implementing it. And the U.S. experience has been one way, and there are many others to draw from.

So in respect to your question about the UN, as I said, we’ve really been very supportive of South Africa’s leadership on this issue at the Human Rights Council and we intend to continue to support South Africa and their leadership. There will be a panel discussion at the Human Rights Council on March 7th during the March session, where human rights of LGBT people will be discussed. So that’s the next upcoming event, and we’re looking forward to that. We think that that will be another chance to have a conversation.

There was a report that was issued recently in December by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which talked about various international legal instruments, parts of international human rights law, and how they apply to LGBT people. So that’s another place where it hasn’t been because we’ve been directly involved but it’s another part of the UN that has been engaged on these issues. And as I said, we continue to be interested in working with our partners around the world. We’re certainly not the only ones who are interested in this, and we continue to look to work with them not only bilaterally but also in the context of the UN as well.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Sergey Ilupin from Russia, a blogger and LGBT activist: Russian law does not recognize LGBT as a social group and does not contain the term homophobia. It is impossible to prove the homophobic reasons of dismissal, beating, or murder of LGBT people. Moreover, the law prohibiting propaganda of homosexualism has recently been passed in a few regions of Russia. In fact, this law aims to paralyze the activity of LGBT rights organizations. What steps are you planning to take to help us overcome this situation?

MR. BAER: The situation in Russia is obviously very difficult, and we are well aware of that. To – I think the first step is 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.

In terms of the specific instances that you raise, I think we’ve been very clear in our disagreement with that kind of legislation, and we will continue to urge that such legislation is not a way forward that is consistent with international human rights obligations and that it’s unlikely to solve any problems that it may be identified as solving.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Julian Neaves : Will there be any penalties for countries that refuse to adopt anti-discriminatory policies?

MR. BAER: The Secretary’s speech really laid out what we see as an affirmative policy. Really, it was a commitment to engage in a conversation with partners and with those who have much more progress to make around the world on making sure that rights are secured for everyone. So it was not intended to be a message about penalties or demerits or detractions. It was intended to be an affirmative message about the value that we can all derive out of seeing that everyone is protected. So that’s really the aim of our policy right now, and that’s the aim of our assistance to the extent that we’re investing in grants for NGOs, et cetera.

What we’re trying to do is help make sure that when we invest in civil society abroad that we’re making sure that we’re investing in civil society across the board, including civil society that advocates on behalf of vulnerable groups like LGBT people. So this isn’t – this wasn’t meant to be a threatening message. It was an invitation to a conversation and to an opportunity to make progress in all societies, including our own.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Embassy Warsaw: We know that the U.S. Secretary of State monitors human rights situations across the globe. What is the mechanism of reacting for cases of violation of LGBT rights by other countries? In other words, how is the U.S. Government going to react in the case of violation of LGBT right across the world?

MR. BAER: That’s a good question about the – kind of how we operationalize the policy, and it’s one of the things that we’ve been working on internally. But I would say that the Secretary, over a year ago, sent out a message to all of our ambassadors around the world asking them to engage on human rights for LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy. And obviously we rely on – in all aspects of our foreign policy, we rely on our embassies around the world to really give us a heads up when things are happening and to let us know what their assessment is of facts on the ground and how we might be – how, if at all, we might be most effective in reaching out to the government or making any kind of public comment or reaching out to help an activist who may in trouble, those kinds of things.

And I’ve been really thrilled in the last few years to see how embassies are, around the world, are taking seriously this work. We’ve always had a great relationship with embassies in terms of their feeding back into Washington cases of concern about activists who get in trouble for speaking out or for advocating for women’s rights or for taking on a corrupt judiciary or things like that. And so that has continued, and we’ve seen that embassies have, in many cases, raised cases of LGBT people who get in trouble or raise cases of laws that are being contemplated that we ought to be aware of and that we ought to be considering how we can make the case that those laws are not necessary and would be counterproductive. So we really rely on our embassies a lot for the hard work that they do every day. There’s a human rights officer in every embassy around the world who makes it their primary responsibility to follow these issues, and we have a great partnership with them back here in Washington.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Embassy Kyiv in the Ukraine: LGBT individuals in Ukraine have no protection against being fired if their sexual orientation or gender identity is discovered. Has the U.S. considered working with American chambers of commerce, the Foreign Commercial Service, or economic sections in embassies to encourage U.S. firms working abroad or international firms in any country to adopt LGBT-friendly human relations policies?

MR. BAER: You’ve hit on something that we are in conversations right now about how best to engage the private sector. It’s something that a lot of people have raised that 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. 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. And that’s a conversation that I’ve started to have with a few friends in the private sector who have raised it with me, but we’ll be continuing to talk to friends, including in the chambers of commerce, et cetera, about what the opportunities are.

MS. JENSEN: We have another question from Suriname: What would you say to the people who claim that LGBT rights is a Western product with its promotion of a form of imperialism?

MR. BAER: I think I would refer back to what the Secretary said in her speech. There has long been a myth that being LGBT is a Western phenomenon and that therefore the commitment to protect LGBT people is a peculiarly Western thing. I think that demeans non-Western societies. Non-Western societies have commitments to human rights just like Western ones and have concepts of universalism just like Western ones, and I don’t see their commitments as any less valuable or real when compared to Western societies.

And so the commitment to human rights is a commitment to human rights for everyone. And I think that as a matter of history it’s interesting, because one of the things that I hear when I talk to folks often – I travel often in Africa, and one of the things I hear there is to say that protecting LGBT rights is – the human rights for LGBT people is a Western thing is actually a complete inversion, because, in most cases, the provisions and law that are discriminatory or that criminalize LGBT conduct or status are legacies of imperialism. They were left by Western governments and are still in place.

And so I don’t think the right way to approach this is that it applies to one region of the world. It applies to all regions of the world. Neither – it’s important to note – neither are the problems that LGBT people face solely non-Western phenomenon. There are problems that LGBT people face in my country and all over the countries in Europe. There are still hate crimes in the United States. There is still discrimination in the United States. This is something that we all can work on and that there’re improvements to be made in every country around the world. So it’s not a Western thing; it’s a universal thing. And being gay isn’t a Western thing; it’s a human thing.

MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Matthew Jenkin: When the U.S. is still very much divided on gay rights issues such as marriage; does that lessen the impact of America’s pressure on other countries to establish LGBT equal rights?

MR. BAER: As I said earlier, I think that we have a general commitment in our approach to foreign policy to lead by example. And so obviously, domestic policy has implications in how we are understood internationally. And it’s well understood that we have an ongoing conversation domestically about the question of marriage; however, I think that even for those who don’t recognize a difference in kind in the question of marriage or the question of decriminalization, I think that you can recognize a difference in degree between the question of marriage and whether or not somebody should be killed or thrown in prison for who they are.

And so I think that we’ve found that the conversation about the fact that nobody should be killed or beaten or abused for who they are or who they love, that’s conversation that we can have with many, many partners around the world, and including in places where some people are surprised that the reception is collaborative and productive. So I think that’s something that everyone can agree on and that we’ll continue to expect that other conversations will continue not only in the United States but also in other places around the world.

MS. JENSEN: Rob Salerno wants to know: It’s been well known that the U.S-based evangelical organizations have been supporting efforts at criminalizing homosexuality in many countries, notably Uganda. Does the U.S bear any responsibility for these actions? And if so, how can the U.S. prevent American organizations from undermining LGBT rights abroad?

MR. BAER: 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.

One of the things that – as I’ve talked with the religious community here, one of the things that I’ve been asked to do and that I’ve tried to do domestically is to engage in a conversation about how religious organizations that are doing work abroad can best understand the context in which they’re working and what the implications or the effects of their work might be. I spoke at conference at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in October and talked about the challenge of reconciling religious beliefs that hold that homosexuality is a sin with the commitment that each person is entitled to dignity and should be free from violence or being thrown in prison for who they are.

And I think that’s a – it’s a serious conversation, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. And there are religious people who are willing to have that conversation, and we should engage in that conversation and really identify the way forward that allows us to do justice to both. And one of the things that Secretary Clinton said in her speech, which I deeply believe, is that for many of us religious beliefs are a great source of meaning, they help us understand the world around us, and they help us – they give meaning to our daily life. And at the same time, for many of us, the person who we choose to make a life with and who we love is also a great source of meaning and gives us a way to understand the world around us. So the ultimate effect of both of those things can be something that is enlarging, and we want to make sure that we are protecting the space for each individual to pursue not only his or her religious beliefs but also to be able to live a life of dignity.

MS. JENSEN: We have time for one more question, and it comes from Claudia Calleja from the Times of Malta: Two lesbian teenage girls were recently beaten up in Malta because of their sexual orientation. Various organizations called for better legal protection for LGBT people. What measures should governments take to protect LGBT people from such attacks?

MR. BAER: Well, I think the focus on better legal protection is a good one. I think one of the things that we see around world is that when crimes or abuses go unpunished or uninvestigated they are more likely to be repeated. And so one of the things that any society can do to help combat violence or abuse against any vulnerable group is to get serious about investigating and redouble efforts to investigate and prosecute those who are responsible. And that’s something that we’ve struggled with domestically throughout the decades but that we’ve gotten increasingly better at. And we have an entire division at our Department of Justice that prosecutes cases of discrimination. We now have a federal hate crimes law, and so we can prosecute federal hate crimes. And I think really focusing on that legal aspect is important.
But of course, there’s also the broader commitment which those laws evidence, and so again, here, this is a time where it’s an opportunity for leaders to speak out and to condemn violence against anyone and to say that it shouldn’t be part of a democratic and rights respecting society and that it won’t be tolerated. And I think the opportunities for leadership – whenever somebody who is vulnerable is being pushed out, pushed down, cast aside, violated in some way, there’s an opportunity for leadership to step up and to reject that and to say that that’s not the kind of society in which we want to live. And so I think both the legal aspect and the political aspect are opportunities here.


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Turtle Bay and Beyond is a blog covering international law, policy and institutions. Our experts - at the UN, European Institutions, and elsewhere - explore an authentic understanding of international law, sovereignty, and the dignity of the human person. We expose those who would seek to impose a radical social vision that is contrary to these principles.

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