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Gay rights protesters demonstrate in London in November against increasingly discriminatory laws around the world aimed at the LGBT community. (Getty Images)
How gay rights has become a foreign policy issue
First Published Feb 27 2014 10:05 am • Last Updated Feb 27 2014 12:37 pm

The fight over gay rights is moving from the U.S. to the world stage.

Just as the domestic debate on several major gay issues appears to be entering its end game, it is heating up as a foreign policy issue.

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Gay marriage is legal in an increasing number of states, gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military, and a bill to protect gay workers is widely popular with the public.

At the same time, other countries are passing discriminatory laws and stepping up persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

With broader discretion over foreign policy than domestic laws, President Obama is i stepping up criticism of anti-gay laws abroad and encouraging countries to promote gay rights. This week, he publicly denounced a new law in Uganda that makes homosexual acts punishable by up to life in prison.

He also sent delegations of openly gay U.S. athletes to represent America in his place at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia this month — a snub of that country’s discriminatory laws against gay citizens and their supporters.

And last year, the president ignored critics at home and abroad to send an openly gay U.S. ambassador, James Brewster, to serve in the conservative Dominican Republic.

Activists say that the new focus on gay rights overseas is a culmination of years of work by Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In 2011, Clinton spelled out that policy initiative in a speech famous among foreign policy circles: "Gay rights are human rights," she announced in Geneva, echoing another one of her famous speeches in Beijing where she said "women’s rights are human rights."

That same day, the president released a memorandum instructing all foreign affairs agencies to find ways to promote gay rights abroad.


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To be sure, Americans are far from settled politically on the issue of gay rights. Many Republicans continue to oppose same-sex marriage, and the fight over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act will likely take years. But there are signs that the once-hot fight among social conservatives has cooled, such as Wednesday’s veto by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer Arizona of an anti-gay bill.

American attitudes toward more overt discrimination overseas are much more unified.

That’s because American leaders recognize that gay rights is the next battle front in the ongoing global fight to protect human rights, argued Mark Bromley of the Council for Global Equality, an international coalition promoting LGBT rights.

"Most countries around the world now understand that there are consequences to disadvantaging women or to treating some of their ethnic or indigenous minorities with contempt," Bromley said. "But there’s still sort of a free rein in many countries to target and persecute many LGBT individuals."

He also thinks some leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, foment persecution of gay citizens to distract from greater economic and political stability problems.

Whatever the reason, it’s jarring to compare American laws that allow gay couples to marry in 17 states with foreign laws that make homosexuality illegal in 38 African countries, said Ty Cobb, who runs the global engagement program for the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.

"Americans are shocked by the contrast between the progress we’re seeing and the backsliding in other countries," he said.

That may explain why, unlike the domestically divisive issue of same-sex marriage, supporting basic gay rights abroad is an increasingly bipartisan issue in Congress.

In 2009, Congress passed a bill aimed at curbing domestic hate crimes based on gender or sexual identity.

Today, it’s become routine for a handful of Republicans to speak out against discriminatory LGBT laws like those in Uganda.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is a leader on this issue, said in a statement when the law passed Uganda’s parliament: "All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect across every country and continent."

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