Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Advocate: Congressman: White House LGBT Announcements Imminent

Congressman: White House LGBT Announcements Imminent
By Kerry Eleveld

California representative Howard Berman predicted in an interview Thursday that the White House would be presenting new information regarding LGBT policies sometime before annual pride celebrations in June.

“I think the White House is preparing to make an announcement on a number of issues,” he said, declining to go into detail. “I’m predicting here, not informing, that by the Stonewall anniversary we will have a very clear picture of what the administration is doing.”

Congressman Berman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, foreshadowed the announcements during an interview about the Foreign Affairs authorization bill that passed out of his committee Wednesday and will provide new diplomatic and development resources for the State Department.

While the bill included many positive provisions to help address LGBT issues abroad, one section that was struck from the legislation would have ended the practice of excluding domestic partners of foreign service officers from benefits routinely provided to spouses and children, such as access to emergency evacuation support, training and language classes, health care and regional medical units, employment opportunities, consulate services, and visa and relocation support.

Berman said he agreed to remove that section of the bill based on his understanding that both the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were committed to equalizing treatment for same-sex partners in the very near future. He suggested that declaration might be part of a greater package of policy pronouncements from the White House.

“My expectation with respect to the issues that were originally part of my bill, is that the State Department and the secretary will provide the kinds of benefits that I sought,” he said, adding that he was committed to ending discrimination against gay and lesbian foreign service officers. “If I’m wrong, which I don’t think I am, we still have a ways to go on this bill and we can reverse course.”

Berman referenced a quote from Michael Guest, a gay ambassador who finally resigned in 2007 over the State Department’s discriminatory practices, in which Guest said, “Under current practices, we’re kinder to family pets of foreign service officers than we are to gay partners.” That’s true, Berman said, noting that the country pays for the transportation costs of pets to and from foreign posts and provides evacuation services for pets.

What did make the bill were a series of policies that will empower the State Department to: track violence and discrimination against LGBT people that would be deemed illegal in the United States; encourage and persuade governments of other countries to repeal or reform any laws that criminalize homosexuality or restrict fundamental freedoms of gay individuals or organizations; include in annual human rights reports documentation of violence or discrimination against people based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Representative Berman said some Republican congressmen like Chris Smith and Mike Pence opposed those inclusions in the bill.

“They were torn and conflicted, almost anguished in the debate,” said Berman, “because I don’t think they can or do justify violence against people because of their sexual orientation and I think they no longer seek to defend criminalization of homosexual conduct…. And yet, [those protections are] what they sought to eliminate with their amendments.”

Berman said he was hopeful the bill would reach the House floor for consideration by early June.

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