Kerry Eleveld's most recent cover story for The Advocate details Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's efforts to elevate "the dialogue on LGBT rights around the globe." Eleveld is leaving The Advocate to become editor of Equality Matters, Media Matters' new war room for gay equality.
"Gay rights are human rights." With that declaration -- and the team she has assembled at the State Department--Hillary Rodham Clinton has elevated the dialogue on LGBT rights around the globe.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveled before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 State Department employees celebrating gay pride at the agency's Loy Henderson Auditorium in Washington, D.C. last summer. "Gee, let's do this every week!" she said. This, it seemed, was to be more of a reunion of old acquaintances than a perfunctory speech on diversity.
At first, Clinton glanced down--to the lectern and her prepared remarks. But her focus on the written page melted away as she looked up and rolled on with the speech, channeling the myriad mental notes she had made over the years.
Displaying an uncanny depth of understanding for the challenges that many LGBT youth experience, Clinton spoke of tragedies that would only come to national attention months later after a spate of heart-wrenching teen suicides dominated headlines for weeks. She called on the staff members before her to help create a safe space for gays and lesbians everywhere, "Particularly young people, particularly teenagers who still, today, have such a difficult time and who, still, in numbers far beyond what should ever happen, take their own lives rather than live that life."
Men and women around the world were being "harassed, beaten, subjected to sexual violence, even killed, because of who they are and whom they love," she said.
[Clinton's chief of staff and counselor Cheryl] Mills is striking and quick-witted but doesn't seem enamored of either Washington protocol or hierarchy. She's not here for prestige -- she's here to champion the cause of Clinton, who she believes is a model public servant. "If you are a student of who she has been, even from her beginning days coming out of law school, [you know that Clinton] starts from a frame of, 'What maximizes each person's opportunity to live up to their God-given potential?' " Mills says.
That sentiment has served as the foundation for Clinton's work at the State Department. And the bond between Clinton and Mills--their laser-like focus, their common passion for advancing the cause of justice--has yielded what is arguably the Obama administration's most progressive and productive agency on LGBT equality, one that has overhauled discriminatory personnel policies while championing gay rights internationally.
Optimizing conditions for LGBT employees and their families was a crucial step forward. Of the nearly 2 million federal workers in the United States, the State Department's gay employees have perhaps the most at stake when it comes to domestic-partner benefits. Not only does working abroad make for a demanding career, but relocating one's partner and family also creates added stress for the department's roughly 13,000 Foreign Service members. The spouses of heterosexual employees based overseas have long been considered when it comes to expense allowances, housing, emergency evacuations, passport and employment assistance, and other benefits. But prior to Clinton's tenure, same-sex partners received none of these benefits. As Mills notes, "There were a number of things here that looked very obvious as inhibiting the opportunity to get the very best out of people."
The State Department also aggressively revised passport regulations for transgender citizens, who were previously required to provide proof of sex-reassignment surgery in order to change their gender marker. Now trans people only need to provide certification that they are under a physician's care for gender transition. At the time the new policy was announced last June, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, marveled at the expeditious change. "It came faster than I thought," she said.
By the time a Uganda bill surfaced in the fall of 2009 that would make homosexuality--already illegal in the nation--punishable by death or life in prison, the Obama administration had already joined more than 60 other nations in supporting the U.N. General Assembly's statement on human rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Nonetheless, the "kill the gays" bill put the State Department's diplomacy surrounding LGBT rights to the test.
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to several African countries, says Mills showed immediate interest in the bill, asking him what the U.S. embassy in Uganda was doing in response. "She also asked me to take advantage of any meetings with high-level officials to raise this matter," says Carson, who was scheduled to visit Uganda on a couple occasions to consult with President Yoweri Museveni on issues surrounding his country's involvement with peacekeeping forces in Somalia.
As those conversations concluded, Carson used the opportunity to urge Museveni to stymie the antigay bill being advanced by parliament member David Bahati. "I told him that we felt it was a violation of human rights and that this kind of legislation would have a negative impact on Uganda's image," he recalls.
Carson implored Museveni several more times, both in person and by phone, as did Secretary Clinton herself. By design, these discussions were done outside the media spotlight: The State Department didn't want to inflame an already bad situation and further endanger Uganda's gays and lesbians. "It was not until there was a greater public debate in the Uganda newspapers and we were questioned more directly here in Washington by gay and lesbian groups that we felt that it was appropriate to respond more openly outside of diplomatic channels about what we had done," Carson says. By that time, Museveni had already acknowledged to the media that he'd had discussions about the bill with U.S. diplomats--a key step, Carson notes, to avoid shaming and potentially damaging relations with a foreign government at a critical time.
"We do not need to do something publicly when we can achieve the same goals and objectives privately," Carson says.
For Secretary Clinton, operating in the shadows while enabling LGBT groups on the ground to exert their influence was really the best option. "Sometimes, what we might consider an appropriate political or social action on behalf of people who are under threat would not be helpful in certain cultures," she says.
As she works to redefine the U.S. role on international gay and lesbian rights, part of Clinton's job has been to make sure a cultural shift permeates all levels of the State Department and the furthest reaches of its bureaucracies, including U.S. embassies, where change can sometimes come at a slow pace.
Not everything where LGBT rights are concerned has gone perfectly at the State Department under Hillary Clinton. A U.N. vote last November removed "sexual orientation" from a resolution condemning executions on a variety of discriminatory grounds. Advocates said administration officials should have seen the vote coming and disrupted the group of African countries that banded together to push it through. But the setback was quickly erased by a successful December vote that reversed the ruling.
HIV/AIDS activists have railed against the administration's PEPFAR funding levels, which in 2010 fell far short of Obama's promises during the campaign to provide at least $50 billion by 2013--which would have necessitated an increase of about $1 billion each year. But a new plan of providing $63 billion over six years for a broader global health initiative in which 70% of the funding is dedicated to HIV/AIDS now appears to have set the administration on course to reach Obama's campaign pledge by 2014, albeit a year late.
And an internal effort to designate a specific person as an LGBT policy adviser failed based on disagreements about such a position's overall efficacy.
But here's what has become objectively clear: It's not necessary to have such an adviser when people like Clinton and Mills are thoroughly conversant on the issue-- constantly leaning into it rather than away and empowering those below them to help change the culture.
From the January 6 edition of The Advocate:
Ironically, what many of the president's key advisers had originally tagged as a stumbling block has now become his one pristine win for the progressive base. Tax cuts went to everyone, including the richest segment of our country, in a move that some believe will establish the rates as a permanent fixture that shreds the middle-class fabric of this nation. The opportunity that was health care reform was lost to the lack of a public option. Wall Street reform was a sham in the eyes of many liberals. Key environmental legislation and immigration reform never got off the ground, though the heroic efforts of youth activists put the DREAM Act in play.
In fact, repealing the gay ban marks the one place where Obama didn't compromise the ideals of his progressive base. The question now is whether the lessons of the repeal battle will dawn a new day in the national fight for equality.
Will politicians and especially President Obama and his aides begin to fixate on the upsides of making strides toward equality for all LGBT Americans instead of obsessing about the downsides of battles lost years ago? In history we are taught that nations often prosecute the last war they were in rather than fighting the battle that's unfolding before their very eyes. But great leaders -- those who change the course of history -- are willing to turn away from the tangibles of the past to keep their eyes trained on the potential of an amorphous but illimitable future.
Much is left to be done. Transgender individuals especially are at risk of chronic unemployment without a means of recourse for wrongful termination. Gay binational couples are still torn apart by the cruelty of a system that fails to view their families as legal entities. And simply put, our nation's laws continue to value the humanity of certain citizens and debase that of others according to the expressions of their love. [The Advocate, 1/6/11]
Eleveld is departing The Advocate to become editor of Equality Matters, Media Matters' new war room for LGBT equality.