by Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON, DC – “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 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, an annual 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,” he said.
Guest, who is the openly gay former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, 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 added that 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. 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.”
He 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 local 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 anti-gay 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 of the U.S. “It is time for the U.S. to regain its voice…Our embassies must become advocates for change.”
Death Threats in Kosovo
“Even when you tell your family you are gay, you still have to get married and have kids,” said Korab Zuka, explaining the situation in his native Kosovo, once part of Yugoslavia in southern Europe.
He established the Center for Social Emancipation in April 2005, the first organization promoting LGBT rights in Kosovo. He hid his own identity and appeared on a national television program, behind a curtain, his voice electronically altered.
But his secret leaked out and there were death threats, his car was vandalized. A fundamentalist Muslim group vowed to bomb he and his family if he did not leave the country and the police said they could not protect him.
Zuka left his homeland in May 2007 and applied for political asylum in the US in 2007. He was one of the lucky ones, it was granted and he now lives in Washington, DC.