The Obama administration's declaration that it plans to use foreign assistance, international diplomacy and political asylum to promote gay rights abroad is a momentous step that could dangerously backfire if not pursued with delicacy and an appreciation of how the challenges faced by gays and lesbians vary by nation, human rights activists said.
President Barack Obama, in a memorandum to executive departments, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a speech before the U.N. Human Rights Council, issued a coordinated denunciation Tuesday of anti-gay discrimination, stating that equal treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people was an explicit U.S. foreign policy goal.
The White House said the twin moves represented the U.S. government's first comprehensive strategy to combat sexual orientation-based human rights abuses around the world. Gay rights groups cheered the actions, noting that gays and lesbians can be arrested, tortured and even executed in some countries.
Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, a group that monitors religious organizations with anti-gay views, listed Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Iran and Zimbabwe among the nations that had recently "declared war on sexual minorities" and said that he hoped they would be chastened by the administration's blunt talk.
"This was one of those times where our nation demonstrated true international leadership and made me incredibly proud to be an American," Besen said. "There were no carefully crafted and focus grouped code words that sugarcoated the abuses _ just the honest truth spoken from the heart."
Other activists focused on gay rights internationally were more restrained in their praise. Neil Grungas, founder of the San Francisco-based organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, which represents gay asylum-seekers, said it was critical for the administration to secure allies on every continent to avoid looking like it was imposing American values on parts of the world that view the West with mistrust or hostility.
Recalling how large demonstrations broke out in Pakistan in June after staff at the U.S. Embassy held a gay pride celebration there, he said that Obama's sincere commitment to improving the gay rights picture globally could inadvertently make life worse for gays and lesbians abroad.
"This cannot be seen as a U.S.-only issue because at the end of the day that would be counter-productive," said Grungas, who was in the audience for Clinton's speech. "In countries where U.S. moral leadership is not high and where increasingly Western values are negative ... there is a real danger people can use this issue and say, `No, we are cleaning up here, we are going to reject this American imposition of decay.'"
In his presidential memo, Obama directed the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies to make sure U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance helps gays and lesbians who are facing human rights violations. He also ordered U.S. agencies to protect vulnerable gay and lesbian refugees and asylum seekers.
But the directive does not make foreign aid contingent on a nation's gay rights record or include specific sanctions for poor performers, making the policy more of a moral challenge to other governments than a threat.
"The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States' commitment to promoting human rights," Obama said in a statement.
Clinton's audience in Geneva included diplomats from Arab, African and other nations where homosexuality is criminalized or where brutality and discrimination against gay and transgender people is tolerated or encouraged. Many of the ambassadors in the audience responded with stony faces and rushed out of the room as soon as she finished speaking.
In unusually strong language, the secretary of state compared the struggle for gay equality to difficult passages toward women's rights and racial equality, and she said a country's cultural or religious traditions are no excuse for discrimination.
"Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world," she said. "Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality."
Clinton also catalogued international abuses such as targeted killings of gays, "corrective rape" of lesbians or forced hormone treatments. She likened the targeting of gays for mistreatment to "honor killings" of women, widow-burning or female genital mutilation, examples of practices the U.S. decries but has not penalized friends including Afghanistan for carrying out.
"Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition," she said. "But violence toward women isn't cultural; it's criminal."
Neither Clinton nor Obama named any individual countries with especially poor records on gay rights, although an annual State Department accounting of global human rights has cited abuses by such friends as Saudi Arabia.
Scott Long, former director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said he was interested in watching the administration translate its broad statement of principle into a practical action plan that considers different countries' views toward both gay people and the U.S.
"I would like to see them think strategically about what would work best to support activism on the ground," Long said in an interview from Egypt, where he was meeting with local gay rights activists. "It's going to differ from country to country based on that country's relationship with the United States. There are places where an embrace from the U.S. could be the kiss of death for a social movement."
Jessica Stern, acting director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York, said the administration was wise not to tie gay rights to the provision or withdrawal of foreign aid because doing so could set lesbian and gay people up as scapegoats. Instead, the U.S. could assist gay rights groups with necessities like rent, salaries or an escape route from persecution, Stern said.
"If a grass-roots organization doesn't have access to government ministers, maybe what they have is the police showing up at their doorstep every day," she said. "That's when they need the U.S. government to communicate with their allies in a foreign country, but the question is how to do it right, how can you do it discreetly?"
Gearan reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.