Promoting an LGBT-Inclusive Human Rights Agenda

The progress of LGBT rights in Europe and the Americas has elicited a backlash in other parts of the world. Strong U.S. leadership can help reverse this alarming trend and mitigate the threat of widespread violence.


Richmond Blake visits Caquiaviri, Bolivia, in 2013 to meet with female entrepreneurs who formed a sewing microenterprise with the support of the Office of Global Women’s Issues. The 18-month project, “Strengthening Sewing Microenterprises to Increase Incomes for Indigenous Women in Rural Bolivia,” created eight sewing cooperatives to provide economic opportunity for more than 80 women in the La Paz department community.
Courtesy of Richmond Blake

The violent extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State recently released a series of videos in which black-hooded men are seen pushing victims from the top of high-rise buildings. The clips depict people gathering below to watch the victims, accused of being gay, fall to their deaths before maiming their corpses.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is not only under violent attack from this barbaric violent extremist group, but from various hate groups, vigilantes and governments around the world. Human rights organizations report that so far this year, scores of LGBT persons have been murdered or imprisoned simply because of who they are and whom they love. More than 75 countries outlaw homosexuality, and in at least seven of them, the penalty is death.

The social and political success of the LGBT movement, notably in Europe and the Americas, has elicited a strong backlash in other parts of the world. A Pew Research Center survey reports that in many African and Middle Eastern countries, more than nine in 10 people say they do not accept LGBT people as part of their society.

Eager to win votes or to distract from corruption or other government failings, politicians often play to this popular homophobic and transphobic sentiment. This strategy has resulted in draconian new anti-LGBT laws and frequent arrests around the world, and it exacerbates a cultural climate that not only permits but encourages harassment and discrimination, which often leads to violence.

Providing External Assistance to Support Local Leadership

In many countries, the LGBT community does not have the financial resources or the political clout to defend itself; and in the places where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are most in need, the broader human rights community often fails to offer meaningful support. With such widespread animosity, the potential for larger-scale arrests, attacks or even the systematic elimination of LGBT persons remains a serious threat.

In the absence of local support for these vulnerable populations, only the international community, including the United States, can offer the aid this embattled minority group desperately needs. U.S. leadership, expressed through a strong, sustained diplomatic effort, is required to reverse the backsliding on LGBT rights and to mitigate the threat of widespread violence. This human rights priority will necessitate that the United States government employ its full arsenal of diplomatic tools from robust public diplomacy to foreign assistance. But the persistent challenge for Washington and other external actors is how to best offer support without further inflaming the backlash, or opening indigenous LGBT groups up to accusations of being foreign-driven.

Recognizing the inherent risk in providing external support, a U.S. LGBT rights promotion strategy must be flexible, not “one size fits all.” Mindful that effective interventions vary widely across the globe, Washington should develop country-specific strategies in partnership with local gay community leaders.

Following the lead of local LGBT actors and their allies on these issues is essential, since they are the most credible and persuasive voices within their own communities, and have the most finely tuned cultural and political understanding of the opportunities for LGBT rights promotion in their countries. An approach that seeks to lift up and empower the local gay community also offers the long-term benefit of creating powerful, sustainable partners who will become less dependent on external assistance over time.

Supporting Our New Special Envoy

The United States has already taken significant steps to address anti-LGBT violence and discrimination worldwide, and there is a history of bipartisan support in Congress for diplomatic efforts to protect the international LGBT community. In 2010, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning anti-gay legislation and encouraging the Secretary of State to closely monitor anti-LGBT human rights abuses and to work to repeal egregious laws.

Mindful that effective interventions vary widely across the globe, Washington should develop country-specific strategies in partnership with local gay community leaders.

Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have been quick to condemn hate-motivated attacks, and they have led multilateral efforts to codify international recognition of rights for LGBT persons. With robust U.S. backing, last September the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution calling for an end to violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development financially support foreign gay and trans rights organizations, and are also empowering diplomatic missions, using the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s small grants program, to support LGBT rights-promotion initiatives tailored to local contexts.

Certainly, Sec. Kerry’s February appointment of Randy Berry as the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons in February is a significant diplomatic achievement, and it is an important sign of the strong U.S. commitment to LGBT rights. The position creates a new realm of opportunity for protecting this vulnerable community, by raising global awareness about its plight, and will develop and coordinate U.S. rapid-response mechanisms to address new threats. Berry will also amplify the effect of the State Department’s work by raising additional funds to support LGBT rights promotion initiatives through public-private partnerships.

But as important as the creation of the position is to advancing a comprehensive LGBT rights-promotion strategy, the special representative will need the support of the entire diplomatic service, especially from frontline officers. Every bilateral relationship has its own nuances, and opportunities for engagement on LGBT issues differ from post to post. Yet there are low-cost options that every mission can immediately pursue, not just to fulfill its obligation to monitor and report on the status of gay rights, but to protect the LGBT population from the violence and discrimination that plague it.

Offering Support in Hostile Anti-LGBT Environments

Even in country contexts where public U.S. advocacy for LGBT rights could provoke a political backlash, there are opportunities for engagement. U.S. embassies can work behind the scenes to promote LGBT issues within the broader civil society context. Embassies can encourage existing civil society partners to initiate programming or to speak publicly in support of tolerance and nonviolence. Finding and amplifying powerful religious or cultural voices that support protections for the LGBT community could begin to change local attitudes and allow enough space for local organizations to begin to operate safely in the open.

In repressive environments, the U.S. government can work closely with local LGBT organizations to provide seed grants to support local research and monitoring of violence and discrimination and facilitate publication of their findings. Embassies can also provide support for embattled activists to speak at international conferences or multilateral fora, or with foreign media, to refute the claim of some governments that no LGBT persons live within their borders.

U.S. embassies and consulates can subtly signal support of LGBT rights at representational and public affairs events. Embassy Independence Day celebrations, for instance, present an opportunity to expose local political leaders to LGBT advocates and their families. In climates where such individuals are uncomfortable with coming out, embassies can host cultural events, such as art exhibits, featuring the work of anonymous but local LGBT artists and activists. And when illiberal politicians call for violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, or when repressive governments arrest them and hold sham trials, the U.S. government must send clear and unequivocal signals of its dismay.

LGBT organizations that operate in the most repressive environments indicate that it is typically unhelpful for the U.S. government to take a public role in support of LGBT rights; however, in the most dire situations or in crisis scenarios, most LGBT advocates want Washington to take a strong, public role.

When I was conducting research in Uganda on effective interventions to support the LGBT community in January 2011, for instance, local organizations made clear to me that to combat the anti-homosexuality bill then pending in Parliament, they not only supported, but needed public U.S. engagement. (A version of the legislation was later passed and then ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court in 2014.)

Ugandan activists point to the power of Sec. Clinton’s public pressure on their government as a successful model, and expressed concern about the potential consequences if U.S. public pressure were to wane. With that in mind, missions representing the U.S. government in hostile environments must work hand in hand with the local LGBT community to identify the red line at which point the benefit of U.S. public intervention would outweigh concerns of a backlash. Ideally, Washington would also rally like-minded countries to sign on to the same plan in advance, to facilitate a rapid, multilateral response when crisis-level, anti-LGBT situations arise.

U.S. missions in hostile environments must work hand in hand with the local LGBT community to identify the red line at which point the benefit of U.S. public intervention would outweigh concerns of a backlash.

Advancing a Public Diplomacy Approach

In countries that provide some legal protections for LGBTs, but where violence and discrimination persist, the U.S. government can play a strong role in accelerating the spread of tolerance. Diplomatic missions can work to empower the local LGBT community by providing seed grants to nascent organizations or to fund joint projects executed by several fractious groups to encourage the consolidation of political power. U.S. embassies can arrange educational exchanges to allow local leaders to seek training in the United States on successful advocacy practices that can then be implemented locally. And by leveraging existing relationships with local law enforcement institutions, missions can conduct human rights training that is inclusive of LGBT rights, to sensitize local law enforcement to the dangers that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens face and how best to offer them protection.

U.S. embassies can also use a wide array of public diplomacy tools to support the local LGBT community. In fact, last year alone, more than 120 missions engaged in some form of public diplomacy in support of the local LGBT community. Missions can amplify local organizations’ outreach on their Web platforms or lend credibility to the organizations by hosting events, like film screenings or research presentations, featuring the participation of high-level embassy personnel, including the ambassador.

Embassies can also host prominent American LGBT media, political or sports personalities, who can use their star power to make personal appeals through local media interviews and other public engagements.

An Urgent Need

Advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in other societies is extremely difficult—and in many places, it can be dangerous. But the need could not be greater or more urgent. The advocates I have met in my work with the State Department—a straight South African woman whose sister was a victim of the terribly misguided “corrective rape” phenomenon, a prominent Ugandan activist who was later brutally murdered in his own home and a Bolivian transgender woman forced to flee violence in her indigenous community—all press for the same thing: They ask that I share their stories with the American people and the U.S. government.

These activists are not looking to the outside world to solve their problems or to lead their movements. But they are seeking partnership, resources, strategic advice and training, and diplomatic assistance to defend themselves.

LGBT rights are now a core component of our efforts to advance human rights globally—what Sec. Kerry rightly calls “the heart and conscience of our diplomacy.” All U.S. diplomats, especially those serving in the most anti-LGBT environments, have an opportunity and responsibility to advance this national human rights priority.

Working strategically in partnership with local human rights advocates, our diplomats can improve social attitudes toward this vulnerable population. And in the process, they can help eliminate the widespread violence and discrimination that continue to threaten LGBT persons around the world.

Richmond Blake serves as a special assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. In 2013, he received the State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award for his work as a political officer in La Paz. The master’s thesis he co-authored, “Protecting Vulnerable LGBT Populations: An Opportunity for U.S. Global Leadership,” was awarded Harvard University’s top prize for graduate-level research in the field of human rights in 2011.