Saturday, 20 October 2012

US promotes LGBT rights in embassies despite domestic woes

US embassies worldwide have adopted President Obama’s LGBT rights directive, summed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights.” But is the US being a tad hypocritical?

Given the spate of domestic LGBT hate crimes, including two gay men being beaten in North Carolina (warning: contains graphic images), one must wonder.

The US Consul-General in Melbourne, Frank Urbancic, explained the vanguard Obama directive: “Our role and our goal and our instructions are to make sure that at least as far as the United States is concerned, people’s sexual orientation simply is not part of the equation.”
First and foremost, violence against LGBT people isn’t allowed,” Urbancic said.
The comprehensive efforts of United States Embassies and Missions is admirable. They are soldiering to defend the rights of LGBT people in countries as far flung as Pakistan, the Czech Republic and El Salavador.
In Nairobi, Kenya, Raymond Stephens, the Cultural Affairs officer in the US Embassy, describes their efforts as a simple affair. The embassy held a small private seminar for LGBT activists in an meeting room.
(Media attention only started when Kenyan newspapers speculated that Scott Gration, the deeply religious US ambassador to Kenya, resigned because he disagreed with promoting gay rights.)
Homosexuality is considered illegal here in Kenya [but] there is a very peaceful co-existence. There was concern if we focused attention on the gay community, Kenya could turn into another Uganda,” explained Mr. Stephens. Nevertheless--and perhaps rightfully--the US pushed its agenda.
Despite the concern, the Kenyan event was, well, uneventful.
Less eventful than the beating experienced by Mark Little and his partner Dustin Martin. Last Friday, the Huffington Post reported that while the couple were vacationing in September in Asheville, North Carolina, they were attacked by two women and a man while walking back to their hotel. The two women began taunting Little and Martin with homophobic slurs, including “faggot." Then the man physically attacked them.
We’ve had a problem with bullying and harassment for a long, long time here in North Carolina,” said Ian Palmquist, former Executive Director of Equality NC, a lobbying organisation intent on eradicating homophobia in North Carolina. “North Carolina has always been a really interesting state. It’s certainly not a Massachusetts or California.”
Also LGBT policy varies widely between the states (only 21 states outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation). But discrimination is not limited to the Red states. Sir Ari Gold, an openly gay musician, described a bus ride experience in left-leaning New York:
We were sitting in the front row, listening to one iPod with two headphones…we were just enjoying ourselves, we weren’t kissing or anything. The bus driver pulled over and told us if we wanted to continue to sit like that we had to go to the back of the bus.
He pulled over a second time after calling the State Troopers.
It was a pretty traumatic thing.”
Back of the bus? A bit reminiscent of Rosa Parks?
Back in North Carolina, Mr Palmquist agreed that the patchwork LGBT-rights implementation was ineffective, “At the federal level, there has been some good work by the Department of Education to encourage local schools across the country to adopt anti-bullying programs. But there really needs to be legislation by Congress.”
The future of gay marriage and LGBT rights in America is precariously balanced, and will largely be determined by next month's US federal elections. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan vehemently oppose same-sex marriage, even civil unions. Many believe that Obama “coming out” days after Biden in support of gay marriage will cost him North Carolina, a critical swing state.
In the face of this uncertainty, Obama's commitment to fight discrimination against members of the LGBT community throughout the world is admirable.
But perhaps it is easier to push an agenda in far-away Kenya rather than make the politically costly move of drawing attention to the bloody mess in their own backyard. Indeed, until it is politically expedient, Mark and Dustin's North Carolina holiday will have to wait.

Squirrel Main is co-producer and presenter on World Wide Wave, an international LGBT news show on JOY 94.9. Read more and listen to these interviews on the W3JOY website (

This article was published in Crikey on Monday, October 16, 2012 with the headline US gay rights fight: more to do at home than abroad

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