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U.S. takes LGBT rights global, despite mixed welcome abroad

Sunday, June 29, 2014
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Gay rights advocates listen as NBA player Jason Collins talks about being openly gay in a live TV link-up, at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw on June 24, 2014. The chat with Collins was seen simultaneously by groups at U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Ottawa. The program was one of many global efforts undertaken by the U.S. to promote the gay rights.Alik Keplicz, AP

Gay rights advocates listen as NBA player Jason Collins talks about being openly gay in a live TV link-up, at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw on June 24, 2014. The chat with Collins was seen simultaneously by groups at U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Ottawa. The program was one of many global efforts undertaken by the U.S. to promote the gay rights.

The official U.S. delegation to the recent Winter Olympics in Russia included three openly gay athletes. Soon after that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow opened its basketball court for the Open Games, an LGBT sporting event which had been denied access to many of the venues it had counted on. The U.S. Embassy also operates a website where Russian gay and lesbians can publish their personal stories.

Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, praised the U.S. policy but said there have been missteps along the way, citing a 2011 U.S. embassy gathering in Pakistan that prompted a group of religious and political leaders to accuse the U.S. of “cultural terrorism.”

And in Senegal a year ago, President Macky Sall bluntly rebuked the visiting Obama for urging African leaders to end discrimination against gays. Sall said his country was neither homophobic nor ready to legalize homosexuality, and in an apparent jab at the U.S., he noted Senegal abolished capital punishment years ago.

“The response in the local press was voluminous praise of the Senegalese president, maybe not actually for his stance on LGBT rights, but for effectively asserting Senegal’s sovereignty, yet the two became intertwined,” Stern said.

Busby, the State Department official, denied that increased harassment by governments is ever the consequence of U.S. advocacy, instead describing it as “a cynical reaction taken by leaders to advance their own political standing.”

In some countries, like Poland, the U.S. efforts are a catalyst for change.

The embassy there financed a 2012 visit to Warsaw by Dennis and Judy Shepard, the parents of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998.

A group of parents who heard their story were so shaken by the Shepards’ tragedy that they founded a parental advocacy group, Akceptacja, which is fighting homophobia. The parents are now reaching out to their lawmakers personally, in what advocates say is the conscious adoption of an American strategy of families of gays and lesbians appealing to the hearts of officials.

“The killing of Matthew Shepard represents the fear I have that my son could be hurt for being gay,” said Tamara Uliasz, 60, one of the group’s founders. “I realized that what happened in Wyoming could happen here.”

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