Special Report

Is the U.S. Government Promoting Homosexuality Overseas?

At the State Department, LGBT rights trump religious freedom.

By 1.3.11

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Revoking "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has gotten all the attention of late. But the Obama Administration is involved in another related initiative that is potentially no less significant.

Religious liberals in the United States have accused U.S. evangelicals of "exporting the culture wars" to Africa by preaching conservative cultural norms. But signals emanating from the State Department indicate that the U.S. government may be engaged in its own evangelistic efforts -- to help legitimize homosexual practices in those socially traditional countries.

Although the language of some U.S. officials begins with the legitimate concern for personal safety and freedom from the threat of violence, it often ends by demanding acceptance of homosexual acts as a human right.

"We've come such a far distance in our own country, but there are still so many who need the outreach, need the mentoring, need the support, to stand up and be who they are, and then think about people in so many countries where it just seems impossible," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech in June as part of "Pride Month" celebrations at the U.S. State Department.

At the event, which was organized by the group "Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies," Clinton said the State Department is supporting efforts to advance homosexual rights around the world. "We celebrate the progress of advancing the rights of LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] in our country, as we continue to advance the rights of all people around the world," Clinton gushed before the receptive audience, adding that the "struggle for equality is never, ever finished."

The State Department's increasing interest in homosexual rights comes as critics -- such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom --have accused the Obama Administration of weakening their commitment to the freedom of religion in favor of a more narrowly defined "freedom of worship." The State Department's sudden focus upon homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa is puzzling, as countries with far harsher policies towards homosexuals -- such as Iran and much of the Islamic world -- get an apparent pass on the matter.

According to Thomas Farr, a visiting professor at Georgetown and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, the Obama administration seems to have decided that policy initiatives including outreach to Muslim governments and advancing gay rights would be compromised by vigorous advocacy for religious freedom.

"In fact, such a decision would harm the victims of religious persecution, hamstring key Obama initiatives, and undermine U.S. national interests," Farr writes.

During her June address, Clinton stated that her department has formalized reporting on homosexual rights for the first time in the 2009 annual human rights report that was issued in February on every country in the world. But the top U.S. diplomat quickly honed in on Africa, saying that U.S. embassies there had been directed to ask their host government about the status of LGBT rights. A special panel discussion on LGBT rights in Africa was also held later in the day.

"We celebrate the progress that is being made here in our own country toward advancing the rights of LGBT Americans, and we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done but that we are moving together in the right direction," Clinton said.

Clinton's comments were echoed later the same month by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael H. Posner. Posner gave an opening introduction at the Center for American Progress, where new CAP visiting Senior Fellow Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, hosted former Ugandan Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo for a panel discussion about advancing LGBT rights abroad. Senyonjo is a rare liberal African prelate whose views are rejected by the Anglican Church in Uganda. Particular attention was paid to a bill long before the Ugandan parliament, which would further criminalize homosexual conduct. Ugandan Anglicans oppose the harsh legislation, which has virtually no chance of passage, but which has energized U.S. liberals, who have tried erroneously to blame U.S. evangelicals, like California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, for inspiring it.

Posner said he was at CAP to "lend support of the U.S. government" to Robinson and Senyonjo. "LGBT rights are human rights; we work to promote them as we would any other," Posner said.

In March, Posner introduced the State Department human rights report to Congress, emphasizing what was termed a growing crisis in abuse directed against LGBT people worldwide, and urging the use of diplomacy to counter the alleged trend.

In introducing the report, Posner singled out the case of Uganda, where he alleged that introduction of anti-homosexuality legislation has resulted in abuse. The report further documents LGBT-related incidents in almost every country in the world.

Posner's report met agreement with Robinson and Senyonjo during their conversation at CAP.

"[The] time is coming when we should not work on just one bill, but towards decriminalization," Senyonjo said, adding that he was "very grateful for voices all over the world that work against oppression."

 "It is wrong to say, 'Don't interfere, it's a domestic thing,'" the former Anglican bishop said. He compared foreigners working for decriminalization of homosexuality in Africa to aid workers providing earthquake relief in Haiti.

"Where I hope we are headed is to discover the enormous diversity in human sexuality," Robinson said. Senyonjo responded with a firm "yes."

The New Hampshire bishop said that with the ever-expanding number of sexual orientations in the gay community, he looked forward to the day when heterosexuals also began to acknowledge the complexity of their sexuality. "There are nine times as many of them, nine times as many sexualities," Robinson suggested.

The two bishops also fielded a question about the Catholic Church's response to homosexuality in Africa. Senyonjo replied that African Catholic leaders would say to homosexuals: "Be who you are, but don't be active." He likened this approach to talking to a volcano ready to erupt.

Robinson concluded the event by telling Senyonjo: "We send you back as a missionary to the people of Uganda and the Church of Uganda."

In that commissioning, Senyonjo seems to have found a partner in the U.S. State Department. For them, seemingly sexual freedom is more important than religious freedom. Look for more developments in 2011.

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About the Author

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.