State Dep’t Official Warns of Backlash in Promoting LGBT Rights Abroad

Patrick Goodenough | April 17, 2014 | 4:14am EDT
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Deputy ambassador Richard Hoagland greets guests at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad’s first-ever lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender “pride celebration,” on June 26, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Embassy Islamabad)

( – Addressing an event on “global LGBT rights,” a senior State Department official on Wednesday sounded a note of caution about how the U.S. promotes such issues in religiously or culturally conservative countries, warning of the risk of a backlash there.

“There are times and places where I believe we need to temper our idealism with at least a certain degree of realpolitik,” principal deputy assistant secretary Richard Hoagland told an audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“In our desire to do good, we should never forget the terribly important maxim, ‘First do no harm,’” Hoagland continued. “There are countries in the world, whether religiously or culturally deeply conservative, that will react to our values and goals with backlash against their own LGBT citizens.”

“We should maintain enough humility to remember that we are terribly new at promoting LGBT human rights as U.S. foreign policy. Of course we want to do good – but we should do it, with patience, in a way that results in the maximum benefit for those we want to help.”

Hoagland, who is homosexual, had personal experience with that kind of backlash during a posting in Pakistan several years ago.

In late June 2011, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad held its first-ever lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender “pride celebration.” Hoagland, then the number two diplomat at the mission, co-hosted the event with Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, an organization that represents gays and lesbians at the State Department, USAID and other agencies.

According to the embassy, more than 75 people, including mission staff, military representatives, foreign diplomats and “leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups,” took part.

A week later, protestors taking part in customary anti-U.S. July 4 demonstrations added the “pride celebration” to other grievances, such as drone strikes and the Osama bin Laden raid two months earlier.

“They have destroyed us physically, imposed the so-called war on terrorism on us and now they have unleashed cultural terrorism on us,” a representative of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the country’s largest religious political party, declared during a rally in Karachi, one of several held that day.

JI and several other Islamic groups in a joint statement called LGBT individuals “the curse of society and social garbage.”

“They don’t deserve to be Muslim or Pakistani, and the support and protection announced by the U.S. administration for them is the worst social and cultural terrorism against Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s Penal Code outlaws what it describes as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”

‘One of the remaining human rights challenges of our times’

The Obama administration’s State Department has made promotion of LGBT issues a foreign policy priority, particularly at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, where in June 2011 the U.S. co-sponsored the first-ever resolution adopted by the U.N. on the human rights of LGBT people.

The measure split the council between Western and Latin American countries on one side and Muslim and African members on the other. It passed by 23-19 votes.

Six months later then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a Human Rights Day-themed speech in Geneva on LGBT rights, describing the issue as “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our times.” Religious beliefs and cultural values do not justify the failure to uphold the human rights of LGBT people, she argued.

Pointing to countries where homosexual acts carry the death penalty – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria’s shari’a-governed northern states – or prison terms of 10 years or more, the State Department has been careful to characterize the campaign as one promoting “human rights for LGBT people” rather than one promoting “gay rights.”

But in many conservative, developing countries the drive is perceived as a Western push to promote a homosexual lifestyle and behavior.

‘Foreign countries should not impose their values’

Last June, President Obama nominated five openly gay political appointees as ambassadors, and while four of the five were named to liberal Western democracies the fifth, James “Wally” Brewster, was named as ambassador to the predominantly Roman Catholic Dominican Republic.

Some Christians in the Caribbean island nation protested, and a Catholic bishop said the nomination demonstrated “a lack of sensitivity” on the part of the U.S.

James “Wally” Brewster, the new U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, arrives in Santo Domingo on November 26, 2013. (Photo, U.S. Embassy Santo Domingo)

Brewster duly took up his post last November, telling reporters on his arrival, “My spouse Bob and I are looking forward to building on the relationships we have established here in the Dominican Republic over the past decade in my new official capacity.”

When the Vatican’s envoy to the Dominican Republic earlier this year declined to invite Brewster’s partner, Bob Satawake, to a reception in honor of the country’s president, some diplomats threatened to boycott. The event was postponed, but eventually held last month, with Brewster and Satawake in attendance.

Soon after the five gay U.S. ambassadors were named, Nigeria’s foreign minister caused a stir when he told his country’s official news agency that if diplomats with same-sex spouses were posted to Nigeria, “we have no choice but to accredit them” because they represent countries where same-sex marriages are legal.

The remark drew a strong reaction, with a spokesman for the Christian Association of Nigeria calling for the minister’s dismissal.

“We want to make it abundantly clear, be it America or Britain or any country that sends a gay diplomat to Nigeria; we will mobilize to chase him out of the country,” Sunday Oibe said. “If America and Britain have deviated and ran away from God, we in Nigeria don’t want to turn our back against God.”

The foreign ministry then issued a statement saying the minister had not endorsed same-sex marriage, but that he “reiterated that foreign countries should not impose their values on Nigeria.”

Obama was in Africa last June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Defense of Marriage Act, and during a joint press appearance with Senegalese President Macky Sall he was asked about the issue of homosexuality in Africa.

Obama replied that he believed that “every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions.”

“But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” he said. “I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view.”

In his response, Sall said Senegal was not ready to change to decriminalize homosexuality, but also claimed that it “does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being.”

Countries should respect each other’s choices, Sall said.

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