[This post has been updated with video of the US State Department web chat.]
BY ROB SALERNO – The US State Department hosted a live web-chat on LGBT human rights open to journalists from all over the world, and Xtra participated.
Speaking for the US government was Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor. Baer spoke frankly about the US government's aims and limitations in promoting a queer human rights agenda both abroad and domestically.
I asked Baer to explain what the US government's approach is to its own domestic religious organizations that are supporting efforts to criminalize homosexuality in many countries, particularly Uganda. Does the US bear any responsibility for these actions? And if so, how can the US prevent American organizations from undermining queer rights abroad?
Baer's response was measured.
"We wouldn’t – we don’t seek to limit the activities of civil society or religious groups domestically or internationally, and there are many, many American groups that do enormously good work around the world. I know that there are reports of a number of organizations that have been advocating for laws that have, as their ultimate effect, a limitation on the human rights not only of LGBT people, but of other people. Because many times these laws cast a very wide net, and obviously it’s very important to understand the context in which you’re working in order to be able to know what kinds of effects your actions will take," he said.
A big focus of questions was the practical steps the US is taking to promote a queer human rights agenda abroad.
Zoryan Kis, from Tochka Opory in Ukraine, asked: "LGBT individuals in Ukraine have no protection against being fired if their sexual orientation or gender identity is discovered. Has the US considered working with American Chambers of Commerce, the Foreign Commercial Service, or Economic Sections in Embassies to encourage US firms working abroad, or internations firms in any country, to adopt LGBT-friendly Human Relations policies?"
"You’ve hit on something that we are in conversations right now about how best to engage the private sector," Baer said. "The private sector really has an opportunity to play a role here, and how should we talk to them about that. One of the reasons that people bring this up, of course, is that in the American context, it’s a little-known fact, but in the U.S. there is no federal legislation protecting – right now protecting LGBT people against discriminatory firing and employment." (Some states and cities have anti-discrimination statues, but most do not.)
"However, the American private sector has really led the way. And so I believe – I don’t know what the exact proportion is, but it’s the vast, vast majority of Fortune 500 companies have as a matter of corporate policy nondiscrimination policies that include LGBT people. And the private sector has led the way on this, because it makes sense for business that you don’t want to lose out on any talent for a silly reason. And so they’ve made their own choices, and I think that there certainly is an opportunity. It’s probably the case that that principle applies in other places around the world as well, and so there’s certainly an opportunity for the private sector to lead in other places around the world as well," he said.
A major theme of Baer's comments was the need to engage non-state actors on the ground, including businesses and civil society, to build momentum for human rights in places where governments are obstinate against queer human rights.
"If you look back at the progress that we’ve made as a country toward a more perfect union, toward a country that is more respectful of the equality of each and every citizen, I think that progress is largely attributable not – it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of those in civil society. Obviously, Dr. King is somebody who comes to mind, and he was not a government figure, and yet he is somebody who many of us credit with having shifted the national conversation in ways that we are all still benefitting from today," Baer said.
A journalist from Suriname wanted to know why gay rights are a priority for the US.
"Human rights are a priority for the U.S. Government. When President Obama gave the Nobel lecture after he won the Nobel Prize, he talked about the fact that the only lasting peace would be a peace that was based on the inherent dignity of every person. And I think that one of the things that this Administration has recognized is that in many places around the world, as in our own past and present, LGBT people are often left out, pushed aside. They don’t have access to social services. Sometimes they are thrown in jail, sometimes they are even killed for who they are. And that if we believe that human rights apply to everyone and that human – that a world that respects human rights is more likely to be safe, prosperous, and good for all of us, then it stands to reason that we should be committed to human rights for everyone," he said.
On the touchy situation in Russia, where local governments in some cities and regions have taken steps to make it illegal to promote homosexuality, Baer spoke forcefully but tactfully.
"The situation in Russia is obviously very difficult, and we are well aware of that," he said. "There are many places where LGBT is not called out as a particular vulnerable group that needs protection, and in those cases – and indeed, in the U.S. hate crimes law has been a recent innovation and in the last few years. And so I think where there isn’t specific protection in the law, you have to rely on the general protections that apply to everyone. Now, I understand that in various contexts even those protections are not firm enough supports and that they are unevenly applied and often discriminatorily applied. And that is a real challenge. I think as much as possible, appealing to general protections of freedom of expression or freedom of association is obviously the legal route that is available.
"Now, you also raise the worrying trend, which we’ve seen not only in Russia but in other places around the world, of trying to limit speech as a way of trying to curtail various forms of citizen participation in government or citizen activism. And I think one of the things that really needs to be highlighted about these kinds of laws, the laws that say you can’t talk about homosexuality, is that they’re not just a limitation of speech for LGBT people, they’re a limitation of speech for all Russians or all people, all citizens of whatever states in which they might be – or municipalities in which they might be considered. And so they are a violation of international standards of freedom of expression, and we should argue against them not because we’re seeking to protect one particular community but because we’re seeking to protect that standard of freedom of expression for everyone."
Watch the video above or read the transcript here.