This piece is in today's Washington Blade.
State Department urged to address ‘shocking’ violations 120 countries cited for abuse, harassment of gay citizens
By CHRIS JOHNSON
A new advocacy group is calling on the U.S. State Department to address gay rights violations detailed in a recently published report.
The State Department released its annual report March 11. The document, which is thousands of pages long, breaks down the human rights violations in the past year for each country in which they are reported. Included are reports of discrimination and violence against gays overseas.
The new gay rights group, tentatively named the LGBT Foreign Policy Project, is calling for greater action and involvement from the State Department in addressing the gay rights issues mentioned in the report. The group highlighted aspects of the report and called for further action Tuesday at a press briefing in Washington.
Michael Guest, a gay former U.S. Ambassador to Romania who is now a member of the group, said the range of abuse described in the report “is simply shocking.” Guest retired as an ambassador last year in protest because of State Department policies toward the same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers.
The report “includes killings, police violence, unwarranted arrest, extortion and a wide array of legal and other forms of societal discrimination,” Guest said.
The State Department identifies at least 37 countries in which gay citizens were assaulted or killed and at least 15 countries where police abuse has been documented.
“Abuses are being committed in countries that are friends and allies of the United States — including some to which the American taxpayer gives substantial amounts of assistance in the form of military or developmental assistance,” Guest said.
James Hormel, former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg and the first openly gay person to serve as a U.S. ambassador, also encouraged action on the report.
“We need to renew and reinvigorate our worldwide commitment to human rights and that includes recognizing LGBT rights as human rights,” he said.
The report identifies gay rights violations in about 120 countries.
For countries like Saudi Arabia, where sex between two men is punishable by death or flogging, the report notes extreme hostility toward gays. In October, a court there sentenced two men to 7,000 lashes each for having sex with other men. The police also detained 250 men and subsequently arrested 20 for participating in a suspected gay wedding.
There is less detail for Iran, a country that is also known for its hostility toward gays. The most specific incident of anti-gay activity the report cites is a reformist newspaper in Iran that was shut down after interviewing an alleged gay activist.
The report even finds gay rights violations in Western European countries, which are widely considered to be gay friendly, The incidents of hostility there appear more isolated. In the United Kingdom, gays continue to experience discrimination and violence, despite laws prohibiting such discrimination, the report states. In Germany, a group of actors performing in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” were beaten and hospitalized following their performance, the report cites.
The State Department also notes the extension of gay rights in some places, such as Taiwan. The legislature extended medical and legal protections enjoyed by married couples to straight couples and prohibited employment discrimination.
Scott Long, a member of the LGBT Foreign Policy Project and founding member of the gay program at Human Rights Watch, said that while reporting on gay rights violations overseas is an important start, it’s not enough. Long advocated that U.S. ambassadors interact with gay groups overseas.
“One thing we need again is to know that all embassies, all our ambassadors all our public servants are talking to the people they should be talking to,” he said.
The United States needs to employ “strategic intervention” to provide support to movements and put pressure on governments.
“This means not just putting pressure on our enemies because our enemies are not the ones who listen — it means putting pressure on our friends because they do,” he said.
Long said there have been significant gay rights violations in Jamaica and said the embassy there has taken steps to address those issues.
Guest, noting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned violence against women abroad earlier this month, called on the secretary to “use her voice herself to speak out” on these matters in her talks with other countries.
The former ambassador said he realizes the U.S. government often has to address many issues in other countries besides gay rights, but added, “we think it’s a critically important issue and it certainly needs to be addressed in some fashion.”
Guest said as a U.S. ambassador he “never got a single request” from the State Department “to take this issue seriously.”
The former ambassador said the LGBT Foreign Policy Project plans to present its ideas to David Kramer, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
Susan Johnson, senior coordinator for democracy promotion for the State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, attended the briefing and said the U.S. government has already taken some measures to address concerns raised by the LGBT Foreign Policy Project.
Last summer, the State Department told all ambassadors to support human rights more actively, she said. Ambassadors should be “speaking out to defend the defenders and … meet with them and do other things that would demonstrate U.S. government support for those activities,” she said. She did not specify that ambassadors were encouraged to meet with gay rights leaders.
Congress also recently passed a law requiring the State Department to produce annually an “advancing freedom and democracy report” that would detail what action the State Departments has taken to follow-up on its human rights reports, Johnson said.
Johnson said later she believed that U.S. ambassadors have the authority to speak with gay rights groups abroad if they wish.
Gays from Kosovo, Iran seek asylum
To demonstrate the human rights abuses against gays abroad, the LGBT Foreign Policy Project featured Korab Zuka at the briefing. Zuka is a refugee from Kosovo who won asylum in the United States.
Zuka, who is gay, fled to the United States after receiving death threats for founding the Center for Social Emancipation, Kosovo’s first organization aimed at promoting gay rights.
“I’m a firm believer that people are born with fundamental rights and one of them is being treated equally regardless of your sexual orientation,” he said.
Zuka founded the Center for Social Emancipation “to create awareness that gay people existed in Kosovo.”
“In Kosovo, there is this belief that [homosexuality] is an international disease and Kosovo people are not affected by it,” he said.
Zuka said even if people come out as gay to their families, they are still expected to get married and have children.
“So basically you have to play the role that you’re straight regardless … no matter how you identify yourself,” he said.
Zuka appeared on a local television show to discuss his organization. He was hidden behind a curtain, his voice was scrambled and his name was not given, but somehow his identity was still divulged, he said.
He received death threats over the phone and through the mail and his car was damaged. Zuka went to the police, but “their response was, ‘Well, if they want to kill you, they’ll just kill you, so we cannot protect you,’” he said.
Then he received a message signed by an Islamic fundamentalist organization stating that his home and family would be bombed if he did not leave Kosovo. That’s when he decided to flee.
The United States granted Zuka asylum Feb. 29. He lives in Washington.
Long said the asylum process should be reformed because many refugees are not as lucky as Zuka. The burden of proof for needing reason to escape should not lie with the defendant, Long said.
Guest more vocal following retirement
Guest said treatment of same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers has become marginally better since he retired.
He commended Rice for allowing same-sex partners to join the spouses of Foreign Service officers in security seminars. But he lamented that same-sex partners may attend such briefings if space is available.
Guest said leaving his position as ambassador has been liberating.
“I can now say what I want and can now be involved with the issues that I really care about rather than the issues that I’m assigned to care about,” he said.
The former ambassador is expecting congressional hearings later this year on a bill that would address issues faced by same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers.