On Tuesday, the Obama administration took bold and important action in advancing the cause of gay rights around the globe. In a memorandum, the president directed all U.S. agencies to “promote and protect” the rights of gay and lesbian people through diplomatic means, including the allocation of foreign aid. And in a rousing speech before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Hillary Clinton defended the universality of the administration’s cause, saying, “Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, but in fact they are one and the same.”
The announcement should be applauded for several reasons, not the least of which are the real changes in U.S. policy it is expected to spur. While the administration is not proposing to explicitly link foreign aid to changes in other nation’s practices, the memorandum directs U.S. agencies to exert pressure on countries that criminalize homosexuality, to consider gay rights when making aid and asylum decisions, and to support the efforts of local and international organizations in the fight against discrimination and abuse on the basis of sexual orientation.
Moreover, in her speech before many nations with policies inimical to gay rights, Clinton performed another important service: rebuking the relativist arguments that homosexuality is a Western phenomenon, or that religious beliefs and cultural practices can serve as an adequate excuse for tolerating the abuse of gay people. “Being gay is not a Western invention,” Clinton argued forcefully. “It is a human reality.”
None of this, meanwhile, could come at a more important time. While attitudes toward homosexuality are gradually growing more tolerant worldwide, the cause is also experiencing horrifying backslides in many countries. In Uganda, gays and lesbians have faced repeated outbreaks of violence, and the parliament has again opened debate on legislation that could make homosexuality punishable by death. Just last week in Nigeria the senate approved a bill criminalizing gay marriage, with penalties of up to 14 years in prison. And of course there are the many U.S. allies in the Middle East and Central Asia—including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Egypt—which still offer punishments for homosexuality ranging from imprisonment to death.
So kudos to the administration for a bold and needed move. But, while it may seem churlish to use a commendable gay-rights initiative as an excuse to find fault elsewhere, we cannot let this moment pass without remarking once again on the president’s ongoing refusal to speak up for gay marriage. In 2008, Obama came out against same-sex marriage. More recently, it has been reported that his views on the subject are “evolving.” Many people have accepted his winking posture as a necessary evil of politics, or even as a sly way of appealing to varying camps in the run-up to his reelection. But in light of his commitment to the full rights of gays and lesbians abroad, his steadfast refusal to endorse marriage equality at home comes across as merely cynical and calculating.
The situation for Clinton appears nearly identical. Her daughter, Chelsea, is an active proponent of marriage equality, and Bill, too, has recently and publicly shifted his views, supporting the passage of the same-sex marriage bill that cleared the New York state legislature earlier this year. Only Hillary remains a holdout, and her unwillingness to revise her position seems clear enough: She is a politician, and she apparently hasn’t given up her ambition of running once more for higher office.
But it’s the year 2011, and we should no longer tolerate politicians talking out of two sides of their mouths on the subject of gay rights. Americans may be moving slowly towards acceptance of marriage equality on their own; but their elected leaders still bear a responsibility for pushing the country in the right direction.