New U.S. strategies for combating anti-gay laws

78 countries with laws against homosexual activity
78 countries with laws against homosexual activity (Click image for the list)

United States officials are pushing two relatively new strategies for promoting the human rights of LGBTI people worldwide.

Over the opposition of Global South politicians and others who complain of neo-colonialism whenever the U.S. tries to dissuade homophobic nations from persecuting their sexual minorities, LGBTI advocates are promoting these two endeavors:

  1. Using free-trade pacts as a tool for expansion of human rights of LGBT people in countries with repressive laws. (See coverage in BuzzFeed.)
  2. Appointing a special LGBT envoy in the U.S. state department to push for recognition of the human rights of LGBT people worldwide. (See coverage first in BuzzFeed and then in the Washington Blade.)

Excerpts from coverage by BuzzFeed and the Blade are below. First, from BuzzFeed:

LGBT Members Of Congress Object To Free-Trade Deal With Countries Criminalizing LGBT People

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who has imposed a version of sharia law that restricts women's rights and provides for death by stoning as a punishment for homosexual activity.
The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who has imposed a version of sharia law that restricts women’s rights and provides for death by stoning as a punishment for homosexual activity.

Five out LGBT members of Congress objected to the inclusion of two countries with anti-LGBT laws in a free trade deal that the Obama administration is currently negotiating and seeking to fast-track it for adoption.

In a letter sent to the president on [Feb. 11], the members asked why Malaysia and Brunei are part of a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which also includes several other nations in Asia and Latin America. The Obama administration has been seeking “fast-track” authority from Congress for the deal, which means whatever deal they negotiate is guaranteed an up-or-down vote.

Labor unions and other advocacy groups have long voiced concern that TPP could set too low a bar for signatories, but the pact only became a serious concern for LGBT-rights groups last spring after the sultan of Brunei imposed a version of sharia law that included a punishment of death by stoning for homosexuality along with other sexual offenses. The states of neighboring Malaysia also have criminal sharia codes, and the government is appealing a recent court ruling striking down their provision criminalizing transgender people. The courts of another potential TPP member, Singapore, have recently rejected challenges to its sodomy law, but it was not singled out by the members of congress who signed this letter.

The letter is signed by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), David Cicilline (D-RI), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Mark Takano (D-CA), five of the six co-chairs of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. The sixth caucus co-chair, Rep. Jared Polis, is the only out member of Congress who did not sign the letter. A Polis spokesman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about why he did not sign onto the letter.

The five representatives wrote that the negotiations were continuing with Brunei and Malaysia in the wake of the Obama administration’s announcement in December that it would kick the Gambia out of a trade pact for African nations, in part because of the country’s recent crackdown on LGBT rights.

(For more information, read the full BuzzFeed article.)

The Washington Blade covered the appointment of the new LGBT rights advocate:

State Department names Randy Berry as LGBT envoy

Randy Berry, the U.S. state department's special envoy for LGBT rights.  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State)
Randy Berry, the U.S. state department’s special envoy for LGBT rights. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State)

The State Department on [Feb. 23] announced it has named Randy Berry as its special envoy to promote global LGBT rights.

Berry, who is openly gay, has been the consul general at the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam since August 2012. …

“Randy’s a leader,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement to the Washington Blade. “He’s a motivator. But most importantly for this effort, he’s got vision. Wherever he’s served — from Nepal to New Zealand, from Uganda to Bangladesh, from Egypt to South Africa, and most recently as consul general in Amsterdam — Randy has excelled. He’s a voice of clarity and conviction on human rights. And I’m confident that Randy’s leadership as our new special envoy will significantly advance efforts underway to move towards a world free from violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.” …

Kerry in his statement to the Blade highlighted the State Department’s Global Equality Fund that seeks to promote LGBT rights around the world. He also noted homosexuality remains criminalized in more than 70 countries.

“At the same time, and often with our help, governments and other institutions, including those representing all religions, are taking steps to reaffirm the universal human rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Kerry. “So while this fight is not yet won, this is no time to get discouraged. It’s time to stay active. It’s time to assert the equality and dignity of all persons, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. And with Randy helping to lead our efforts, I am confident that’s exactly what we can and will do.”

(For more information, read the full Washington Blade article.)

This article was updated on Feb. 24 to cite the Buzzfeed article about Randy Berry.

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, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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