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Exporting Homophobia

The Bush administration's anti-gay rights policies are maddening in the United States, but their implications abroad are much more devastating.
 
 
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When the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights on Wednesday, countries like Iran, Pakistan and Zimbabwe scored very poorly, as they have for many years past.

But trumpeting these countries' shoddy rights' records was apparently no disincentive to prevent the United States from joining up with them earlier this year to ban two pioneering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights groups from participating in human rights discussions at the United Nations.

At the end of January, these homophobic nations voted to keep the two groups from participating in the Economic And Social Council (ECOSOC), the only body at the United Nations that allows nongovernmental organizations to distribute materials and observe its meetings. This privilege is known as "consultative status" and, of the 2,700 groups that enjoy it, not one of them is an organization working exclusively for queer human rights.

Evidently, the groups' attempt to join the conversation wasn't even worth discussing. Rather than letting the groups present their case to the council, their applications were rejected out of hand and without review, a move the Associated Press called "almost unprecedented."

While the council rejected only two groups, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) and LBL, the Danish Association of Gays and Lesbians, the vote was viewed as a snub to queer human rights workers around the world. And having the United States weigh in on the opposing side only added gravitas to the position. As Scott Long of Human Rights Watch put it, "Like it or not, the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world. So the example that the U.S. sets is an example for other nations."

Like it or not indeed. Slowly and steadily, it seems, the Bush administration is waging a quiet war on homosexuals abroad in the name of Christianity by pushing so-called "Christian values."

None of this will surprise those who follow the Bush administration's stance on anything queer-related. The current administration's role in striking the fear of God in opponents of same-sex marriage around the 2004 election certainly hasn't gone unnoticed by queer rights groups in the United States, and neither has its cozy friendship with evangelical Christians, who often fault homosexuality for contributing to the "moral decline" of the nation.

While queer Americans certainly have their battles cut out for them, the U.S. vote sent an ominous message of intolerance and, essentially, abandonment to queers in other countries by siding with nations like Sudan and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by torture, imprisonment and, on occasion, death.

Human rights advocates see the ECOSOC vote as another element of the Bush administration's pro-Evangelical, anti-gay agenda, and a powerful one at that. "By denying these groups a voice in the U.N.'s human rights processes, the government has effectively denied a place for LGBT people globally," Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), wrote in an email.

Long said queer human rights groups face consistent opposition from what he calls "the trinity" -- the Vatican, conservative Islamic groups and Evangelical Christian groups. "In domestic policy, the U.S. government and its Evangelical allies are anti-Islamic," he said, "but internationally, they're happy to make alliances."

Such alliances sometimes support governments and organizations that are, as Long puts it, "violently homophobic." Recently in Iran, two gay teenagers were sentenced to hanging on trumped-up charges of kidnapping and rape. Iran, Egypt and other nations also routinely engage in the torture of homosexuals by subjecting them to physical "examinations" that "prove" gayness, threaten individuals with unwanted hormone treatments and perform state-sanctioned undercover sting operations to find homosexuals, who are often subjected to violent police beatings and torture, as Doug Ireland reported for In These Times .

Long says the United States has long since lost its moral standing from which to discourage these practices. "When you have the biggest, most powerful country in the world sanctioning torture, whether it's because of terrorism or anti-gay agendas, it sets a climate that torture is OK," he said.

Siding with human rights-abusing countries is only the administration's most overt anti-gay action. More subtle, and far more insidious, is its funding of AIDS relief and prevention work. The government's requirement that any groups that receive international AIDS funding follow its strict and naive policy of the ABCs -- Abstinence, Being Faithful and Condoms -- the United States has excluded many organizations working with GLBT individuals.

"The U.S. government is doing nothing to ensure that any attention is being paid to the spread of the epidemic among men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women, particularly in Africa," said IGLHRC's Ettelbrick. "This negligence could sabotage the entire HIV prevention effort overseas."

In 2003, Bush introduced his much-touted President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), in which designated $15 billion for AIDS relief and prevention abroad over five years. (For perspective, he's already asked for $72 billion for the Iraq war for this year alone -- the running tab stands at about $400 billion, according to the Christian Science Monitor ). Attached to this money was a clear set of evangelical values referred to by abortion rights activists as the "Global Gag Rule," because it forbids funding to any organization that so much as mentions abortion as an option to its clients.

The gag rule is far-reaching; it refuses funding if an organization uses it own funds to provide abortion, educates the public about abortion, lobbies for its government to legalize abortion or even refers a client to an abortion-providing clinic. Organizations that don't sign the Global Gag Rule can lose access to contraceptives, including condoms.

Just as there is no link between Iraq and 9/11, so there is no link between abortion and AIDS. But under the Bush model of AIDS prevention, even the mention of abortion has caused closures of health clinics in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, where AIDS relief is desperately needed. According to The Global Gag Rule Impact Project, the two leading family planning providers in Kenya have lost one-third of their staff due to funding cuts, and Zambia's leading provider has been forced to cut its budget by 25 percent.

In addition to forbidding the discussion of abortion, the strings attached to PEPFAR money are decidedly anti-gay. The ABC program emphasizes abstinence until marriage as the only way to prevent the spread of AIDS, yet clearly excludes homosexuals from the right to marry. The United States has also funded groups like Samaritan's Purse, which was busted for proselytizing while helping out earthquake victims in El Salvador, to assist in its abstinence education policies, and Exodus International, an organization that calls homosexuality a disease that must be "cured."

"Groups are getting funded in countries like Zimbabwe and Singapore to be like Focus on the Family or Concerned Women for America," says Long, referring to two of the most prominent conservative Christian groups in the United States.

The combination of apparent homophobia in our government's policies and the lack of a plan for or acknowledgement of GLBT individuals at risk for HIV is dually problematic for homosexuals abroad. In a country that punishes homosexuality with imprisonment, as Iran and Egypt do, negotiating health care, or even getting information on health risks, is essentially unthinkable.

Then too, in many nations, the sex trade is peppered with transgendered individuals; men living as women and women living as men. In homophobic settings, trans people, pushed to the margins of society, often engage in prostitution to make a living, as there is much higher demand for transsexual men on the streets than there is within, say, the copper mining industry.

But in the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, Congress specified that "no funds made available to carry out this Act … may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking." Essentially, this means the United States won't support any organization that "condones prostitution," which means sex workers, often at the highest risk for HIV infection, are excluded from the benefits of PEPFAR funds as well.

Though the numbers from the U.N. vote indicate substantial support for gay rights -- five of 15 countries voted to allow the gay groups into ECOSOC, and Germany publicly objected to the vote -- advocates stress that U.S. support is crucial if queer human rights are to gain traction globally.

"[Consultative] status is the required means to have a voice in the human rights processes of the U.N., so the government's vote effectively has denied a place for LGBT people globally," said Paula Ettelbrick.

The State Department has not issued a statement on its ECOSOC vote, and calls to a spokesperson were not returned. But State Department Spokesman Edgar Vasquez did tell the AP, "We did not vote against the group because they are a gay rights group. The United States remains a champion of human rights for all in the world and committed to the right of individual freedom of expression."

Be that as it may, by preventing these groups in particular from expressing their views, the Bush administration has reinforced the perception that it is waging global war on homosexuality. By propping up values of abstinence until marriage and prostitution as a sin -- despite the economy that supports it -- and in entirely ignoring HIV's still-prominent role in queer communities, it seems the Bush administration conveniently ignores those that do not wish to be "Christianized," with devastating consequences across the globe.

Nicole Makris works for the SPIN Project and has written for Mother Jones , Hyphen Magazine and other publications.