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March 28, 2008

U.S. urged to act against
'shocking' abuse overseas

Washington, D.C.--“We are here to raise awareness of a crisis in abuse and discrimination that is being perpetuated against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community in many countries around the world,” Michael Guest said at a March 18 news conference at the National Press Club.

“The range of abuse is simply shocking. It includes killings, police violence, unwarranted arrest, extortion, and a wide array of legal and other forms of societal discrimination that are being practiced in more than a hundred countries around the world.”

These facts were made clear in the 2007 “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” an annual State Department report by the U.S. Department of State. The document runs more than 5, 000 pages and was released on March 11.

LGBT issues were mentioned in 189 country reports, an increase from 142 the year before. Still, LGBT issues are “treated almost as an asterisk, lumped in with other issues,” Guest said.

Guest is the openly gay former U.S. ambassador to Romania. He is now retired and working with the LGBT Foreign Policy Project, a new coalition working for a stronger American voice in that area.

James Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, said, “I believe our country needs to work to eliminate such abuses abroad and at home. We need to renew and reinvigorate our worldwide commitment to human rights, and that includes recognizing LGBT rights as human rights.”

He said U.S. embassies can do a lot more. Simply meeting with such groups “can send a message of concern. Leadership from the top down is key to ensuring that these human rights issues will be taken seriously.”

Scott Long, with Human Rights Watch, said the report is good but the U.S. needs to follow it with action.

“Action needs to be strategic, not necessarily public,” he said. “Pressure doesn’t always take the form of press releases. Action means for every embassy to work with LGBT activities and communities . . . to let them help to decide what needs to be done.”

Long spoke of putting pressure on our friends, “because they listen. We can do a great deal by talking to the government of Jamaica because they care about what we think and say.”

Long said overseas LGBT groups need support to build their organizational capacity. But at the same time, they often are reluctant to take it from outside sources for fear it will taint them. Many antigay activists call homosexuality a “Western disease” that is an anathema to their societies and cultures.

He urged a change in how requests for asylum are viewed. “The burden of proof should not lie on the defendant. If you are gay and come from a country that has a sodomy law or the death penalty for homosexuality, you shouldn’t have to go into the minutia of why you have been persecuted.”

“We need an understanding that the closet itself is a form of persecution. Saying to people you can go back and hide who you are is not an answer or refuge from being persecuted, it is a reinforcement of persecution,” said Long.

Guest said the U.S. government needs to take a higher profile in standing up for human rights in general, and LGBT rights in particular. That is particularly true in countries that are friends and allies.

“It is time for the U.S. to regain its voice . . . Our embassies much become advocates for change.”


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