November 26, 2008 — The Obama administration must support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender concerns internationally to restore the credibility of the United States' global commitment to human rights and equality, a University of Virginia School of Law alumnus and international human rights lawyer told students last month.
"It will send a signal to countries suspicious of the United States now that this administration is rethinking our commitment to human rights," said 1995 graduate Mark Bromley, founding member of the Council for Global Equality, a New York-based nonprofit coalition of LGBT organizations.
With domestic LGBT groups saddled with key civil rights concerns such as employment non-discrimination, and international groups bogged down in big-ticket issues such as torture, few advocates have been taking Washington to task on the international neglect of LGBT rights.
"What I realized as I was doing this work internationally was that, unfortunately, no one was holding the U.S. government to account in terms of how it talks about human rights globally," Bromley said.
He faulted the LGBT community for not confronting the U.S. government's ignorance of the issue. Bromley said State Department officials were still cautious about preaching human rights abroad when the U.S. had its own sodomy laws at home, unaware that the Supreme Court outlawed them in 2003.
"Here's an educated group of individuals dedicated to human rights who don't even know the contours of LGBT rights in the United States. That's a failure of domestic groups to really get up there and make sure they know these things," he said.
While the State Department maintains that sovereignty precludes it from telling other nations what is criminal, Bromley argued that human rights were created precisely to challenge other countries on issues like apartheid or criminalizing homosexuality.
"In many ways, human rights law, I would posit, is about telling countries what can or cannot be done," he said.
Bromley admitted that the contours of LGBT rights are still a hotly contested issue globally. Even within the progressive European Union, LGBT rights extend to employment non-discrimination but do not cover education, health care, housing and marriage.
Despite this, there has been a rising global consciousness about the issue at the United Nations. Bromley said that the Brazilian government's resolution on LGBT rights in 2003, which would have banned all discrimination based on sexual orientation, sparked a ferocious two-year debate on the matter.
Though the resolution was never adopted, it did challenge governments' conceptions of human rights and foster a dialogue among international non-governmental organizations and the United Nations.
"In many ways, that resolution really created what is becoming an international movement in support of full human rights recognition," he said.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, has remained cagey on the issue. It stayed on the sidelines when the resolution was debated and chose to step outside the current U.N. Human Rights Council, Bromley said.
"It was hard to get a sense of where they were, but they certainly were not at the forefront of these efforts," he said.
Bromley also made several recommendations for the Obama administration. While LGBT concerns worldwide were reported in annual State Department human rights reports, he said mechanisms and personnel had to be put in place within its Human Rights Bureau to act on them.
"It's time to move beyond reporting and actually start doing something about these issues," he added.
He also emphasized the need to open up funding streams to LGBT groups that had only received paltry funds for HIV/AIDS up to this point.
"LGBT groups need to be funded as human rights groups in the same way we fund a whole variety of other human rights groups," Bromley said.
The Law School Human Rights Program and the Lambda Law Alliance sponsored the event.