Cringing, cheering about $3m for LGBT rights worldwide

HRC logo 1International LGBT activists managed to cringe and cheer simultaneously at the news this week that the Human Rights Campaign, long dedicated to the fight for gay rights and equal marriage in the United States, has also turned its attention to the fight for LGBT rights abroad.

The cheer was because a widespread recognition of the repression of LGBT people worldwide is long overdue, especially in the 76-plus countries with anti-homosexuality laws and in Russia, where the regime is cracking down on LGBT people and organizations through the new “anti-gay propaganda” law.

The cringe was because of worries about how the HRC would act abroad and about the source of the $3 million supporting the new campaign. BuzzFeed reported:

Roberta Sklar, senior strategist with the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the HRC had the opportunity to make “a great contribution in the global LGBT movement” by using its leverage with multinational corporations to advance LGBT rights abroad.

Roberta Sklar
Roberta Sklar

“I know of no better western-based organization than HRC that could put pressure on multinational corporations and on the US corporations abroad to fulfill the standards that they hold in the United States for workers,” she said.

But, she cautioned that as HRC and other newer organizations enter the international sphere, they need to “approach our mutual work with a certain amount of humility [and] with an understanding that there is a huge learning curve.”

STRATEGY

Some of the language that the HRC used in its announcement was worrisome because it emphasized same-sex marriage at a time when that is a hot-button issue that anti-gay forces deploy as a tactic for refusing to repeal laws that send LGBT people to jail for homosexual behavior.

In Nigeria, for example, anti-gay advocates have given the name “Anti Same-Sex Marriage Bill” to a proposal, already adopted in both house of the legislature, that would outlaw LGBT support groups, criminalize same-sex roommates, bar attorneys from representing LGBT clients, and establish 10-year prison sentences for public displays of same-sex affection.

HRC almost seems to see marriage equality as a first step toward broader gay rights rather than as an option that countries might accept after agreeing to stop throwing LGBT people in jail:

“Opportunities exist for a global equality movement as a growing number of countries are passing pro-equality legislation and recognizing marriage equality.  Seventeen countries around the world afford, or will soon afford, committed and loving gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry.”

NEO-COLONIALISM

Billionaire Daniel S. Loeb
Billionaire Daniel S. Loeb

Activists also fear that HRC will plunge into Third World nations with the attitude of a neo-colonialist savior seeking to rescue the benighted masses there.  Some of the quotes from HRC’s new supporters about the international campaign nourish that fear, such as the statement by billionaire hedge fund manager Daniel S. Loeb:

“As we witnessed in its successful campaign to advance marriage equality in the United States, HRC is a uniquely effective organization that achieves what it sets out to do. I am confident this new program will have an enormous impact in helping to end persecution and enforcing civil rights for LGBT people across the world.”

Some pointed out a neo-imperialist ring to pro-HRC quotes such as this one from billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer, which ignores the U.S. allies that have a grim record on human rights:

Billionaire Paul Singer
Billionaire Paul Singer

“Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe.”

Uganda and Saudi Arabia come to mind immediately as American allies that are also “some of the worst offenders in this area.”

Past pronouncements from U.S. and British leaders about what Third World countries should do about gay rights have been interpreted by local leaders as neo-colonialism, which has complicated or set back the work of those countries’ LGBT-friendly groups, activists say.

Sonia Correa of Sexuality Policy Watch expressed her reservations to BuzzFeed:

If Americans really wanted to support international LGBT efforts, she suggested, money would more usefully be allocated to experienced international organizations. Advocates often point to International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Astraea Foundation for their long track record of carefully consulting with advocates on the ground. Working across international borders “is really a minefield,” Correa said. …

Wanja Muguongo
Wanja Muguongo

[Wanja Muguongo of  UHAI, the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative] sees the initiative as “imperialistic.”

“We are not sitting down somewhere waiting for salvation to come from the North,” Muguongo said. “Don’t come and ‘help’ us — come and work with us…. There are organizations that are working locally and they have their own ideas about what the struggle means.”

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The conservative businessmen backing the new HRC initiative with $3 million over three years make it suspect, says analyst/activist Scott Long. The project “doesn’t quite sound like ‘human rights’ envisioned from the high vantage of universality and internationalism. It sounds like LGBT rights uneasily painted into a picture of US interests,” he says.

Hedge-fund investors Singer and Loeb are “both conservatives and huge donors to the Republican Party,” Long notes, and Singer runs a “vulture fund” that buys debt of distressed Third World countries and then collects on it for a profit.

BuzzFeed reported:

Katherine Franke, director of the  Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School.
Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School.

“The kind of work that HRC is about to take on will set the global movement for sexual rights (not gay rights) back immeasurably,” said Katherine Franke, director of Columbia University Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

Franke accused HRC of colluding in “pinkwashing,” winning Singer points for supporting gay rights and covering over the fact that he has engaged in what she called “predatory investment strategies.” This will ultimately damage HRC’s credibility abroad, she predicted, and the credibility of local organizations that decide to partner with the organization.

Actress Jeri Ryan supports HRC's Russian "Love Conquers Hate" campaign. (Click image for link.)
Actress Jeri Ryan supports HRC’s Russian “Love Conquers Hate” campaign. (Click image for link.)

SUITABLE TARGET

The HRC’s first international focus will be on Russia, which is a safe target for LGBT-friendly conservatives.  In the Russian campaign, the HRC is selling T-shirts imprinted with the Russian words for “Love Conquers Hate.” Proceeds will go to Russian LGBT organizations, which are happy to receive the support.

The campaign has been well received by LGBT activists in Russia.

In contrast to many Western activists who are busy protesting the Sochi Olympics because of Russia’s ongoing crackdown on “gay propaganda,” the HRC asked for permission for its campaign, said Anastasia Smirnova, spokeswoman for a group of six Russian LGBT organizations.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

6 Comments

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  1. Yes, these are important concerns … BUT I think it’s important not to overlook the first sentence of your second paragraph, which sadly does not fit with the tone of this article: “The cheer was because a widespread recognition of the repression of LGBT people worldwide is long overdue.” Most big movements that are worth undertaking are hard, and complicated. And every time any American gets involved in international human rights, many of the valid questions you highlight in the article come to the surface. Those questions are even more salient when a big organization like HRC is concerned. Dealing with those questions appropriately will take a lot of work, people will make mistakes and bad choices, and people – most of whom started off in relatively powerless positions – will suffer, at least in the short term. But that does not mean the better alternative for HRC and other powerful organizations is to do nothing. I don’t think you would make that claim either.

    I really think it’s a mistake to heap criticism on an effort that – as you mention briefly – is long overdue, just as soon as it’s born. We should be encouraging, nudging, and helping HRC to promote LGBT rights worldwide – rather than assuming the worst from the very beginning.

    • Thanks for making that point, Max.

      My one, slightly nit-picking reply is that Roberta Sklar’s comment is also largely positive, as is the final section about the inaugural Russia campaign.

      Best,
      Colin Stewart, editor of this blog

  2. The Left never fails to eats it own…This reminds me of the internecine battles between the Trots, SWP, and Labour during the late 70s and 80, when Entryism backfired and and destroyed any remaining resistance to Tony Blair’s Third Way. Scott Long is well known for his vicious attacks on any activist who does toe his Queer Anarchist Anti-Imperialist line. As for the funds being tainted because the donor is a right wing republican, are we supposed to morally vet all donations? What if it had been anonymous, would that have absolved the funds?

    Sigh

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