When it comes to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad, the United States is still settling into its role. The state has its own long and troubled history with the queer community, in both domestic and foreign policy. Discriminatory laws and practices, historically inadequate sexual and reproductive healthcare, and wildly inequitable hiring practices – including a four-decade ban on granting Federal security clearances to gay potential employees – stain both the federal and state governments’ records with this community.
Thanks to more than half a century of dedicated activism by its queer population, the U.S. government under President Barack Obama is finally showing a shift in policy. Among these are a widely lauded 2014 Supreme Court case overturned same sex marriage bans in 14 states, making it legal nationwide, and President Obama establishing the first national monument to honor the LGBTQ community at the Stonewall Inn. In terms of foreign policy, President Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made waves in 2011 when a memorandum announced that the U.S. would now use all tools of American diplomacy to promote LGBTQ rights abroad. In 2015, experienced diplomat and gay man Randy Berry was named the first U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, and since then he has traveled extensively to promote the rights of queer communities in numerous countries around the world.
Despite Washington’s increased enthusiasm towards the issue, this type of advocacy is especially challenging since it tests complicated and deeply embedded religious and cultural norms and traditions. When the push comes from a state with a reputation and a history of imperialistic practices and associations with human rights violators, it is hard to conceive of an ethical and productive way to advance the agenda for LGBTQ equality. U.S. officials have already met considerable challenge and criticism regarding this dilemma abroad.
As director of transnational non-profit OutRight Action International explained in an interview with NPR last year, “it’s very easy for LGBT[Q]I Africans to be discredited as Western.” U.S. involvement in the push for LGBTQ rights often stokes anti-Americanism and homophobia. In Kenya, homophobic discourse increased, incidents of violence rose and a new-and-improved anti-homosexuality bill popped up in parliament in the weeks before President Obama’s 2015 visit. Similar measures to amplify anti-homosexuality laws and practices precipitated in Nigeria, Uganda, and Chad.
Russia responded to the U.S. and E.U.’s increased attention to gay rights by ignoring court rulings that require countries to allow gay pride events and, just before the Sochi Winter Olympics, passing sweeping laws criminalizing the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations.” Violence at the hands of anti-Western terrorist groups across the Middle East is increasingly targeted at LGBTQ individuals, and in recent years, reports of maltreatment and prosecution of the community is on the rise in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
Still, in many other places around the globe, U.S. officials have received positive feedback after showing support for LGBTQ communities. Many of the moves are largely symbolic; U.S. embassies around the world fly Pride flags to show support during their localities’ Pride festivities. President Obama’s visit to Kenya, despite his knowledge of threats against the LGBTQ community there, included a speech on the importance of “the principle of treating people equally under the law.”
There are some examples of successful policy change through diplomatic means; in response to Uganda’s wildly controversial ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, the U.S. cut aid destined for a community policing program, a local university health program, and military exercises. The Constitutional Court of Uganda quickly ruled the law invalid. But in other countries where LGBTQ rights are at risk around the globe, local activists have consistently expressed a sentiment similar to that of Nigerian activist Chidi Odinkalu: “the risk is causing more harm than good.” These diplomatic policies call increased attention to the movement, which creates “blowback,” he argued, that did not have to threaten communities in the first place.
This argument can easily be found across the discourse surrounding U.S. foreign policy in countries where LGBTQ populations are at risk. Local activists and development practitioners consistently challenge the United States to divest from symbolic measures and work instead toward smaller, measurable changes that don’t necessarily create big waves against the status quo. Perhaps the most interesting reflection of this under-the-table technique was Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s response to Obama’s speech highlighting equality: “For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue.” The comment was not meant to rebuke Obama’s intentions, but rather to convince local extremists and even politicians to drop the vitriol and divert their attention. Today, Kenyan activists claim that response saved lives.
What, then, should the US aim for in promoting LGBTQ rights? Rather than pushing its own symbolic and strategic action without regard for local cultural contexts, Human Rights Watch researcher Neela Ghoshal argues, the U.S. ought to seek coordination with local activists and government institutions and avoid the attention of local media. Support for LGBTQ lives and wellbeing does not have to be grandiose, but should be effective. If the U.S. wants to hold fast to a commitment to LGBTQ rights as human rights, it should start by pursuing strategies that won’t stoke local violence but rather will improve the lives of queer folk around the world.