The Right to Dignity: Prioritizing LGBTQ Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy


Nearly 80 countries around the world criminalize same-sex conduct.

Where these laws are enforced, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons and their basic human rights are at risk. In many countries, LGBTQ youth are alone and afraid, too often the subject to arbitrary arrests, unlawful and pretrial detention, years of imprisonment, violence, and in some cases death.

Even in countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized, persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions, and those perceived to be deviating from the cultural norm, face discrimination and violence.

On Friday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), along with 24 co-sponsors, introduced a bill that aims to ensure the rights of the international LGBTQ community are at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, by directing the state department to author a strategy aimed at preventing and responding to discrimination and violence. The International Human Rights Defense Act (S. 2472) would establish within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor a “Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Peoples.” This new presidentially appointed official will be responsible for coordinating the U.S. government’s LGBT human rights efforts internationally.

In many countries, stigma and discrimination leave LGBTQ youth without access to sexual health information and services. LGBTQ youth who come out to their family or community often face rejection, homelessness, and limited educational and economic opportunities. This ultimately leads to increased rates of substance abuse, suicide, and risk of HIV infection among LGBTQ youth.

In September 2011, while addressing heads of state at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Obama said that “no country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.” Just three months later, Obama issued a presidential memorandum, directing all U.S. government agencies working abroad to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

In the last two-and-a-half years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has hired a senior LGBT coordinator, and the State Department has created the Global Equality Fund. But at the end of the day, U.S. government efforts to implement the president’s memorandum and respond to the human rights abuses of LGBTQ persons abroad remains slow and disjointed.

If signed into law, the IHRDA would mandate a government-wide, inter-agency approach. But it is also critical that any such strategy be done in close coordination with local groups and LGBTQ activists and the communities they serve, prioritizing the needs and wants of those working on the ground.

With new reports showing an increasingly discriminatory and dangerous situation for LGBTQ people in Russia, and amidst claims that other countries are considering draconian anti-homosexuality legislation like those in Nigeria and Uganda, this bill is timely and necessary. Regardless of where we live, we all have the right to dignity, and we will hold our government officials accountable for when they disregard this basic human right.

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