Illustration by Jason Luz, Shutterstock (map)
If 2013 was a time of domestic espionage, budget stand-offs, and bitter arctic winds, it was nevertheless a terrific year for U.S. gays: Eight new states were conquered for marriage equality, a nondiscrimination bill covering both orientation and gender identity cleared the Senate, and the Defense of Marriage Act crumbled under assault from the Supreme Court. America’s increasingly confident, influential, and well-funded LGBT organizations could mark the new year by showcasing a shelf full of trophies after decades of legislative shut-outs.
Internationally, the march of history was less uniform, with the West and Latin America darting forward even as freedom and safety for sexual minorities deteriorated in large parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. In the last 12 months, gays and lesbians gained the right to marry in France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Uruguay, and New Zealand. By contrast, they now run the risk of spending 10 years in prison for going to gay clubs in Nigeria, being sentenced to life behind bars in Uganda for public displays of affection, and deportation from Russia for using hook-up apps. In Cameroon, men who order sissy drinks like Bailey’s Irish Cream can wind up with five year prison sentences. (Yes, this really happened.)
This dichotomy — of progress on one front, systemic assault on the other — appears to have galvanized America’s foreign policy. It’s been over two years since then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced, in December 2011, that a country’s record on LGBT rights could jeopardize its receipt of U.S. foreign aid. In February, Barack Obama skipped the Sochi Olympics in protest of Putin’s gay propaganda law, sending several LGBT athletes in the Administration’s stead. And, at a panel at Davos, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, delivered a speech highlighting a new front in American gay rights activism: the battle overseas.
Griffin gave his speech flanked by Republican mega-donor Paul Singer and noted Obama critic Daniel Loeb, prominent hedge funders who recently teamed up to give HRC more than $2 million to fund a new initiative to accelerate the spread of LGBT-friendly policies around the world. Singer, whose son is gay, and Loeb, whose interest in LGBT issues comes from his wife and his contacts in the art world (Loeb is a major collector), are the same Wall Street duo that rallied support for marriage equality among Republican state senators in New York in 2011. The HRC bequest marks their first effort to promote gay rights in other countries.
As Griffin said in his speech, HRC was merely attempting to catch up with the other side. Antigay groups of American evangelicals have been working for years to internationalize the conflict, most of all in Africa, where many gained a foothold in the 2000s as a consequence of PEPFAR, George W. Bush’s widely admired global AIDS program. Having all but lost the war on the home front, antigay moral entrepreneurs like Paul Cameron, a discredited psychologist who travels the world peddling the assertion that most gays support pedophilia, and Scott Lively, an author who advances the peculiar theory that gays were responsible for the Holocaust, decided to take their business abroad. According to Griffin, the arguments gay opponents abroad use — that children must be protected, that the homophobic public must be placated — are familiar tropes of campaigns in the United States. “Why? Because the messaging is coming from the United States. We’re exporting the hate from our country to these other countries. There are about 20 Americans — I could put up a map behind me, and [from] all of the backward slides you see around the globe, you can draw a straight line to some American or American organization that is advocating, leading, and funding efforts in each of these countries.” In the case of Russia’s proposed law to allow the state to remove children from their gay parents, phony American research is directly cited in the text of the bill.
In order to track these miscreants and expose their “junk science,” HRC has hired an opposition researcher to compile dossiers on Americans who travel to foreign countries to help craft antigay legislation. According to Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president for communications, there’s “a very clear causal link” between American right-wingers meeting with foreign legislators and the passage of antigay measures. “You don’t see Nigerians traveling to Uganda to inspire these laws. The unfortunate reality is that you see evangelical American leaders traveling to these countries.” HRC’s goal, says Sainz, is to do “as much as possible to shine the spotlight on American activists who are exporting this hatred,” in order to discredit them in the American media and among domestic political patrons. At the same time, HRC has begun to push the U.S. government to pressure foreign leaders to reject antigay measures and to engage the business community by adding an international component to its widely cited corporate equality index, which rates companies based on their hospitality to gay employees. Building on the model of Clinton’s State Department reforms, which guaranteed rights for same-sex couples working in U.S. embassies, multinational corporations could play a key role in planting the seeds of freedom in traditionally hostile climes.
Whereas Vladimir Putin likes to frame the Kremlin’s struggle against the homosexual scourge as a battle between Russians and corrupting agents from the West, HRC prefers to frame its efforts as a struggle of Americans against Americans. They point to people like Lively, currently facing charges in federal court for fostering antigay persecution in Uganda under a little-known law called the Alien Tort Statute. It may also be that it’s just easier to get donors to sign checks and journalists to write stories about American enemies working abroad than it is to inflame passions about battles in far-away countries between people of whom we know nothing.
HRC’s new international focus may be prudent for another reason. If the U.S. Supreme Court rules there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage later this year, it could leave domestic gay rights organizations searching for new mandates. To keep the donations rolling in and large staffs employed in the not-too-distant future when LGBT Americans achieve the same legal rights as everyone else we will need a new enemy or fight. If it is true that the next chapter of America’s culture wars will take place on foreign soil, it would mark a break from previous civil rights struggles. After all, the NAACP did not shift its focus to South Africa after securing passage of the Civil Rights Act, nor did the National Organization for Women deploy to Saudi Arabia after Roe v. Wade. In part, of course, that’s because the rights of women and ethnic minorities in the United States are recurring matters of contention.
This time may be different. The speed with which LGBT rights have taken hold in the West, combined with the mounting danger sexual minorities face in some parts of the world, have driven both sides of the American divide to internationalize the conflict. Will the next decade see Wall Street’s millions build an underground railroad from Lagos to New York, whisking Africa’s LGBT youth to safety and freedom? It sounds like a pipe dream — as fanciful, perhaps, as the Supreme Court declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.