Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Gay Rights ARE Human Rights.... But They're Also NOT a Weapon for Imperialism
President Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a speech today at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, at an event marking the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the immediate and carefully orchestrated followup to an announcement today by the President himself that the United States would use diplomacy (and foreign aid and the threatened restriction thereof) to promote rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people worldwide. In many ways it is a fairly remarkable speech: "Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, but in fact they are one and the same.” It's worth the thirty-minute listen. (Text link here and here).
It's hard to imagine such words being uttered from the podium on a world stage just a few years ago, and it's certainly impossible to imagine such a speech coming from a potential Republican administration in Washington. Indeed Republican presidential candidates like Rick Perry immediately went into a fury, attacking the Obama administration for "promoting the homosexual lifestyle."
While there is something to admire in Mrs. Clinton's measured, almost pedagogical delivery of the reasoned and undeniable message that gay people are entitled to the same human rights and dignity as all people, I am left unsettled by this speech, or perhaps, by what is left unsaid. Of this speech a friend of mine left this note on Facebook: "Re Obama/Clinton LGBT foreign aid restrictions. What if a country has some gay rights but denies some residents fair trails, equal education and basic citizenship and employs racial supremacy, imposes one religious paradigm and runs illegal and immoral wars? Oh wait, that's us."
And further, I'm reminded of nothing so much as President Jimmy Carter's vintage late-1970s "human rights" foreign policy campaign, which used professed defense of human rights as a cover for restoring an aggressive and even militarily interventionist foreign policy in the aftermath of defeat in the war against Vietnam. The clarion call of "human rights" was used to ratchet up support for whatever the government wanted to do internationally from a population still reeling from war fatigue. Which is of course the same place the American population is today after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. For all Carter's professed commitment to human rights at the time, under his presidency the U.S. failed to renounce the white racist Apartheid regime in South Africa, and continued to play cold-war games in Africa and elsewhere, sacrificing those same human rights on the altar of fighting communism and the Soviet Union.
Because of course there is plenty more of that same hypocrisy floating around. If the Obama administration is claiming a campaign for human rights and dignity, this apparently does not include the rights of Palestinians watching their land and homes being stolen daily, regardless of their sexual or gender identity. It does not include the rights of Arab spring protesters in countries like Bahrain and Yemen where the local repressive government and the the U.S. government are deeply engaged in washing each other's backs. It does not include the human rights of people across the Middle East and Central Asia to be safe from invisible but deadly predator drone attacks and alleged "collateral damage." And it does not include the human rights of the thousands of peaceful Occupy movement protesters who have been violently assaulted in coordinated nationwide paramilitary attacks.
And as a gay person I resent being used as an instrument of renewed American imperialism. Having robbed and exploited them for years, the nations of the "West" owe the poorer nations of the world plenty of restitution by way of foreign aid. But linking this aid to a segment of the population already viewed with suspicion by some segments of society seems shortsighted and dangerous: While I'm certainly angry at the treatment of queer or gay people by many repressive foreign governments, I'm not at all convinced that making gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people into pawns of neocolonialism is doing them any kind of favor. I'm reminded of nothing so much as the Israeli policy of pinkwashing: where gay people have been recruited to whitewash Israeli's apartheid policies against the Palestinians by way of promoting relatively social liberal domestic policies. In the end pinkwashing doesn't help anybody but the repressive Israeli government: it certainly doesn't help Arab gay people in Gaza or the occupied West Bank.
Mrs. Clinton, it should be remembered, supported George Bush's brutal and unprovoked attack on Iraq; and both she and President Obama have sacrificed what most people presume is their actual support of marriage equality for American lesbians and gays in favor of the political/electoral gain of saying they remain opposed to it. History shows us that the morals of these politicians come and go with the weather. Which means of course this speech is in part meant to shore up domestic electoral support from a gay community that has been fairly quick to criticize the President.
It's a hard truth but one can't view this speech without contextualizing it. I wish this was about somebody just standing up in front of the world and saying gay people should have human rights. You can't see it in this clip, but right behind Hillary Clinton is the blood-drenched arsenal of the American war machine, a two hundred year record of violent aggression against the peoples of the world, a world economic system that sucks the world dry of resources for the benefit of American business, and the mailed fist of retaliation.
Gay people in the United States have our improved if mixed bag of legal rights because we came to consciousness and fought for those rights, and there's plenty of work still to be done. We won over the people we needed to win over, and defeated those we needed to defeat. For all those queer people who live in countries where harsh laws and cultural practices remain the norm, while we can extend a helping hand as brothers and sisters, we can't fix the problems for them. That has to be the patient and brave achievement of people in those countries themselves.
Dear American government: my hard-won rights are not a weapon for you to use.
(Thanks to JMG for finding the link to the speech.)