Tuesday, January 21, 2014

HRC LGBT Donors to Appear at Davos Economic Forum in First Move to Advance International Engagement

UPDATE:  Politico.com correspondent Maggie Haberman published a story on the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, reporting that Human Rights Campaign (HRC) donors Paul Singer and Dan Loeb will be organizing two panel discussions at the normally staid Davos World Economic Forum later this month in Switzerland (the panels appear to be  "side" events and are not currently listed in the official program) .  Singer and Loeb, who are the primary donors to HRC's new international LGBT project are not without controversy.  Both made their fortunes from "Vulture funds," and are members of the Republican Party. Nonetheless,  the fact that openly lesbian Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist will be speaking on one of the panels is a good development and should really break the mold at Davos in more than a 1,000 ways.  Good luck to her continued endeavors to speak out about latest oppression underway in Putin's Russia.

The Human Rights Campaign announced in November 2013 a new global initiative, but Laura Belmonte and Tanya Domi raise questions about the priorities and  expertise of America’s largest domestic LGBT organization to engage internationally 

Last November, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) launched a new $3 million international campaign that has generated both cautious optimism and scathing criticism from those involved in the global struggle for LGBT equality. Both responses are well-founded and the bar is set high for HRC to distinguish itself in an arena long ago claimed by other advocates.
HRC’s announcement this week of a $100,000 contribution to support the Russian LGBT movement is a serious illustration of its commitment to this new venture into international affairs. Madonna, Ricky Martin, Dustin Lance Black and Gavin Newsome, the Lt. Governor of California, are among the 63 donors.  The organization’s ability to raise substantial sums of money and to promote such efforts with celebrities situated front and center is one of HRC’s greatest strengths (see celebrity supporters).
HRC unquestionably has money (nearly $39 million in gross receipts in 2012), expertise and connections in U.S. politics and media that could prove invaluable in gaining attention for LGBT issues abroad. If HRC is willing to connect grass roots activists with public officials, corporate leaders, and media outlets that help them make their cases and to provide them with additional resources or training like their new global fellows program, kudos to them.

But that’s a big if.

With many more hurdles to overcome domestically, is going international now the right strategic move, or is this HRC hedging its bets and paying it forward to position the organization for a different kind of future, when ENDA, marriage equality and civil rights have been secured in a vast majority of states in America? Are the aims of Chad Griffin, who assumed the presidency of HRC in 2012, really different from those of his predecessor Joe Solmonese, whose seven- year tenure was punctuated by allegations that he raised a great deal of money, but pursued an agenda with little substance?
In its first move toward international engagement, right out of the starting blocks, HRC was taken to task for accepting funding for this initiative from Paul Singer, a venture capitalist who has profited from the economic distress of developing nations. Pointing out the devastating effects of poverty on LGBT people in impoverished nations, Wanja Muguongo, head of UHAI –the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative – told BuzzFeed, “You cannot hurt with one hand and say you’re helping with another. It is not money that should be used by anyone for LGBTI work any side of the world. It’s an insult.”
No matter how well-executed, the HRC initiative inevitably will generate suspicion among foreign activists. From Protestant missionary organizations to public health workers to modernization programs like the Alliance for Progress, there is a long history of U.S. humanitarian intervention that has veered into imperialism. While HRC may not see this initiative through such a lens, many of those abroad will.
As domestic activists of many years, we are familiar with the HRC mode of operation: From Maryland to Hawaii, HRC has been rightfully accused of “bigfooting” local activists, icing out those who are considered experts and running roughshod over people who have toiled away for years, often ignored with little or no support, only to be pushed aside when victory is at hand. HRC classically swoops in, grabs the reins of a struggle and claims another victory, but in the process causes hurt feelings and resentments that have plagued the organization for years.
A recent case illustrating our point occurred when HRC staff members excoriated a transgender activist who was holding a transgender freedom flag behind the rally stage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last March during Defense of Marriage Act oral arguments. The staff member repeatedly told the transgender activist that marriage equality was not a transgender issue. Although HRC eventually issued an apology, staff members who were managing the stage committed another faux pas by telling an undocumented LGBT activist who was scheduled to speak at the rally, to remain silent about his immigration status. Not willing to accept HRC’s heavy-handed treatment, United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project issued a video press release condemning HRC’s actions and demanded an apology.

If HRC is this insensitive with transgender and immigrant queers at home, how will they behave abroad, among people who likely speak different languages, have different values, different priorities, and their own ideas about how to advance LGBTI equality in their own countries?
How will they address the “Intersex” political identification which is excluded in America for all practical purposes, but commonly addressed in Europe and other regions of the world?
Indeed, HRC’s entry into international human rights advocacy is quite late and there are many international and national LGBTI groups who have been working for years on these issues, with tremendous experience and expertise. Among them include, Freedom House, The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the more recent and quite effective Council on Global Equality, which HRC financially supports.
International activists are raising concerns about whether HRC will remove more funding than it invests in the nations where they seek to advance LGBT equality. Given the tensions among HRC and state and local activists who have experienced this vacuum effect for years, such anxieties are understandable.
Look no further than the new “Love Conquers Hate” t-shirt campaign HRC is promoting as a means of helping LGBT activists in Russia. Jamie Lee Curtis and others sport the t-shirt in a gesture of solidarity. But one cannot actually buy the t-shirt whose proceeds benefit those working for LGBT equality in Russia without also giving a donation to HRC.
And more to the point, in the case of Russia, where xenophobia is alarmingly accentuated due to the onerous crackdown against the LGBT community by the Putin regime, love between same-sex partners can barely exist, let alone conquer hatred and violence. Such simplistic campaign slogans fall dreadfully short of addressing daily questions of life and death that now confront Russian gays.
It is precisely this type of celebrity-laden self-promotion and resource domination that sends HRC’s fiercest detractors into fits of sputtering rage and opens it up charges of exploitation (or dismissal for a lack of understanding about what is actually happening in Russia for the gay community).
HRC should play to their strengths and continue its financial support to the newly launched Russian Freedom Fund. They should assist groups like RUSA LGBT, Russians working from New York and even consider funding an asylum resettling project for those Russians who will no doubt be seeking a better life in America, but leave it this work to the groups who have worked on international LGBT human rights for decades.
For such reasons, we pose several questions about HRC’s global initiative.
Will HRC actually collaborate with other organizations with much deeper expertise in foreign relations, international human rights, and development? Will this initiative simply export U.S. hegemonic aims, including white privilege and classicism that has undercut many a domestic HRC program? Is HRC cognizant that this global campaign sends an implicit “Game’s over at Home” message to activists in 29 states still working for hate crimes law and protections against employment and housing discrimination? Isn’t it premature to declare victory and go searching for international battles before passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and marriage equality in all 50 states?
The fate of many literally risking their lives for LGBT equality abroad hinges on how HRC and all of us who want freedom for LGBTI people everywhere answer these questions.
Image: HRC Love Conquers Hate Russian T-Shirt via HRC
The original version of this article was published by The New Civil Rights Movement on December 21, 2013
Laura Belmonte is Professor of history at Oklahoma State University and serves on the national council for the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Indiana Lawmakers Considering a Ballot Measure to Ban Same-Sex Marriage

Republican lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly have introduced a proposed amendment to the State's constitution that would ultimately ban same-sex marriage.

I come by this interest in the deliberations of the Indiana legislature honestly -- I was born and grew up there, realizing during my sophomore year at Indiana University in 1974 that I was a lesbian, only five years after Stonewall.

There were no gay community centers, no Ellen DeGeneres on daytime television and gays were banned from serving in the military (antecedent to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell").  When I told my mother I was gay, she said:  "Oh you will have a terrible life."  And when I looked up the definition of "lesbian" in Webster's Dictionary, it was not good, as the writer of the definition illustrated the sorrowful life of lesbians by mentioning Virginia Woolf's tell tale novel "A Room of One's Own."

Thus, I departed the State in 1978, never to return.  Not only was my own family homophobic, racist, among other prejudices, but I grew up a state known as a KKK hotbed, that was also anti-Catholic and of course, antisemitic.  

Bigotry has a dark history in Indiana lore.  And it is currently proving that while the rest of the country is moving toward more fully embracing its LGBT citizens, Indiana's lawmakers seem intent are returning to its destructive past. 

But back to the present.

On January 13, the House Judiciary Committee will consider and vote on the measure.  At the moment, Freedom Indiana, led by openly gay, Republican operative Megan Robertson, is not saying if her campaign is assured to beat back the vote.

HJR3 (formerly known as HJR6) and a new version of the amendment language which indicates what HJR3 does and does not do, known as HB 1153.  No doubt, different numbers and versions of the amendment language is causing  confusion among opponents, which is probably a pretty good bet to be the intention of the proponents.

Indiana state law requires a proposed amendment to be passed by two successive General assemblies, which originally passed HJR6 in 2011.

The language of HJR3 is the following:
Only a marriage between one (1) man and one (1) woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana; and
A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.
On January 11, I participated in radio program hosted by Civil Discourse Now, based in Indianapolis to discuss the proposed amendment and all its related issues.  You can listen to the podcast here:

Interested persons should check Indiana Freedom for updates on the vote by the House Judiciary Committee hearing which starts today at 10 a.m.  But regardless of the outcome, it is truly regrettable that the Republicans have now given new meaning to the term "Hoosier Hysteria,"(which usually refers to Hoosiers love of basketball).

Croatia Recycles its History: A Cautionary Tale for the European Union

Protesters against the Croatian referendum to ban same-sex marriage

Co-Authored with Reuf Bajrovic, the President and Founder of Emerging Democracies Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

When Croatia became the newest member of the European Union on 1 July 2013, its entry—the first ever by a single country—was hailed by overwhelming majority of observers as an important step in the democratic consolidation of the Western Balkans. The prevailing narrative was that Croatia would export democratic values to the region and that its success would act as an inspiration for its neighbors to move past the burdening legacy of the wars of the 1990s.
Less than six months into its membership, it seems that Croatia is not the next Estonia but the next Hungary of the European Union.
The outcome of Croatia’s December 1st ballot initiative that proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman places Croatia in the company of Hungary and four other EU members—Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—all former Communist states, as well as countries like Belarus and Ukraine in effectively banning same sex couples from civil marriage.
The overwhelming support for the amendment shocked the established political class. The ad-hoc conservative group “In the Name of the Family” led by right-wing businesswoman, Zeljka Markic, blindsided the ruling parties with more than enough signatures to get the referendum onto the ballot. Joining forces with a far-right political party, Markic repeatedly issued a conservative trope to voters, indicating the referendum’s aim was to “protect children and families.”
Strong conservative and traditionalist political beliefs remain deeply embedded within the Croatian electorate and throughout the region. Rights of homosexuals are particularly opposed by super majorities throughout the Western Balkans according to the 2010 Gallup Balkan Monitor Survey data report.
In that sense, Croatia is not much different from its neighbors. But other disturbing developments make this referendum a more troubling event.
Efforts by conservative veterans’ associations and other right-wing groups to ban the use of Cyrillic letters in the eastern city of Vukovar—the symbol of the country’s war 1991-1995 for independence—are sending a disturbing message to Croatia’s minority Serb population. As it stands now, right-wing groups seem to have collected enough signatures to organize a referendum on the use of Cyrillic letters.
To add insult to injury, Croatia’s national soccer team’s recent qualification for the World Cup was celebrated by tens of thousands of fans chanting “For the homeland, ready”—a salute of the World War II era pro-Nazi regime which ruled Croatia and collaborated with Hitler’s Third Reich and was also used by extreme nationalist groups during the 1990s war.
The situation escalated when the Croatian police decided to ‘call in for questioning’ Matija Babic, the country’s leading journalist and owner of the most read news portal index.hr and a vocal critic of Croatia’s increasingly nationalist tendencies. Protesting the recent developments, Mr. Babic and Index.hr published an authentic Nazi-era photograph of the Croatian Catholic Church priests using the Nazi right hand salute, as well as a photo superimposing a swastika on the Croatian flag. The State Prosecutor now wants to punish Mr. Babic for breaking the country’s law on the flag.
But it is not just Croatia’s domestic affairs that are a cause for concern. Its foreign policy is once again focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina at a time when this troubled neighboring country is trying to address its own war legacies. The European Union has conditioned Bosnia and Herzegovina to change the discriminatory aspects of its Constitution under which Jews, Roma and all other citizens who refuse to identify with any of the three major ethnic groups cannot seek the highest elective offices in government. But instead of concentrating its efforts on helping Bosnia and Herzegovina’s disenfranchised groups secure equal treatment under the law, Croatia’s efforts in Brussels are consumed by the narrow priorities of two Bosnian Croat nationalist political parties.
All this smacks of the 1990s and rolls back democratic gains made under previous president Stjepan Mesic, who once made Croatia a role model for aspiring EU members in the Former Yugoslavia.
Precedents for these troubling trends are unfortunately present elsewhere in Europe. Hungary is a case in point.
Following his election in May 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the conservative Fidesz party lurched rightward when he rolled back media laws and protections to journalists. In the face of strong criticism by the international community, Orban only doubled down in 2012 by adopting a new constitution that strips some 300 faiths and religious institutions of their legal status. The constitution and related new laws also limit the scope of the constitutional court and violates the independence of judges, the central bank and the governments’ data-protection agency. Even the EU had no choice but to act, issuing a 30-day warning to Hungary to amend several controversial laws to avoid being taken to the European Court of Justice.
Against this backdrop, the extreme right Jobbik Party has escalated its use of hate speech, recently calling Jews a “security risk” and recommending that all Jews living in Hungary should be registered. Jobbik’s numbers of elected officials have more than doubled since 2006, making it Hungary’s third largest party.
Britain, France, and Austria have also been challenged by the growing popularity of the far-right movements, exposing minorities to escalating hate speech and attacks.
The response of the official Brussels to this troubling pattern across the EU has not been very vocal. The whole world has suffered greatly in the last century every time Europe went down the path of self-destruction. Older members of the EU might think of themselves as stable democracies in a stable neighborhood. But the troubling developments coming from its newest member may be a good reason for some much-needed self-reflection. Else the message sent to minorities is that their rights are protected for as long as an aspirant needs to demonstrate its EU worthiness. Once it enters, all bets are off.
Image courtesy of EDI.
This article was originally published on December 24, 2013 at www.edi-dc.org.

Obama Rightly Joins Political Boycott of Winter Olympics

A growing chorus of voices calling for a political boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, began to gain traction this past week in reaction to the host country’s onerous crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. President Barack Obama heeded its calls byannouncing a U.S. delegation of representatives that includes two openly gay athletes and excludes senior elected officials, their spouses and current Cabinet members. His decision should be applauded.
Obama’s appointment of celebrated sportswoman Billie Jean King, a Hall of Fame tennis player who is openly gay and was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as openly gay Caitlin Cahow, a hockey player and Olympic silver and bronze medalist, is a direct rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose anti-gay campaign has been well underway since he resumed the presidency in 2012.
Russian journalist Masha Gessen called for a boycott earlier this fall, urging participating countries to send a strong message of disapproval to Putin, whose efforts to isolate, marginalize and criminalize the lives of LGBT Russians have potential ramifications for those participating in the games, including arrest or deportation.
The U.S. joins Germany, France, Poland and the European Commission, which have chosen not to send high-ranking officials to the opening ceremony on Feb. 7. German President Joachim Gauck recently said he would not attend the Olympics because of Putin’s repeated attacks on human rights. France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced this week that neither he nor President Francois Hollande would attend the Olympics but did not provide an explanation. Vivian Reding, vice president of the European Commission, said in a tweet that she would “certainly not go to Sochi as long as minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation.”
As much as these decisions should be supported, the U.S. can and should do more to isolate and pressure Putin until he ends his pogrom against the Russian LGBT community. 

Assault on LGBT rights

Russia’s draconian anti-propaganda law, a vaguely worded statute that threatens to prosecute or fine anyone who promotes homosexuality — defined as “nontraditional marital relations” — to minors, was passed in June.
Russian citizens who violate the law may be fined 4,000 to 5,000 rubles (US$122 to $152); public officials may be fined 40,000 to 50,000 rubles; and registered organizations may be either fined or ordered to stop operations for up to 90 days. Disseminating information about gays via the news media or the Internet increases fines up to 1 million rubles for an organization, for example.
An international backlash has ensued. When critics called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics, Russia tried to reassure the International Olympic Committee that its anti-propaganda laws do not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, since they prohibit all speech promoting nontraditional sexual relations.
But gay activists remained skeptical. In reality, the law silences all forms of positive speech about LGBT rights by subtly cloaking government prohibitions under the rubric of protecting Russian children. Interpretation is so vague that it is left to police and the courts to enforce or prosecute.
Russia’s clampdown on LGBT rights is not new; it is the latest move in an ongoing struggle. Regional governments throughout the Russian Federation began adopting variations of anti-gay-propaganda laws more than six years ago, according to a report by Human Rights First. Putin’s United Russia party was the chief proponent of the anti-propaganda law that the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed this year and that Putin signed into law on June 29.
Putin doubled down on his government’s assault on gay rights by adding another provision to the anti-propaganda law that provides for the arrest and deportation of foreign nationals who are perceived to be gay or engage in speech that violates the basic tenets of the anti-propaganda law. Foreign citizens are also subjected to a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles, and they may be deported from the Russian Federation or jailed up to 15 days. This law could be applied to any Olympian or visitor who is attending the Olympic Games.
Early next year, after the Olympics, the Duma
is expected to take up a bill that will authorize
state authorities to remove children from
same-sex Russian couples. 

Putin’s war on civil society

The crackdown on the LGBT community coincides with a general oppression of civil-society groups. Since Putin returned to the presidency, his government has passed a series of laws that target activists and journalists. In May 2012 the Duma adopted an law restricting freedom of speech and public assembly; recriminalized libel, rolling back reforms adopted in 2011; adopted Internet content restrictions, known as law No. 139-FZ, which also calls for a unified registry of prohibited websites; and adopted a more expansive definition of treason, which now includes “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization ... directed at harming Russia’s security” — in other words, activities that could be interpreted to include engaging in international advocacy for human or environmental rights.
In November 2012, the Duma bookended the treason law by passing a law requiring nonprofit organizations receiving monetary assistance from abroad to register as foreign agents. Human rights activists have warned that the foreign-agent law will lead to the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of activists and advocacy groups and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
According to Human Rights Watch, in early March 2013 prosecutors launched an unprecedented campaign of inspections against civil-society groups in Russia, forcing them to register for receiving foreign funds, submitting them to administrative rulings and court actions or warning them under the foreign-agent law. Prosecutors targeted at least 95 groups, including Golos, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for voter rights. Golos was the first group to face prosecution under the foreign-agent law, and the Justice Ministry suspended all its public and financial activities on June 26 after the organization lost an appeal on June 14.
Together, these new laws have created a climate of fear and intimidation in Russia. During a visit to the United States, Evgeny Pisemskiy — an LGBT-rights activist and the chairman of Phoenix Plus, an NGO that serves HIV-positive gay people in Orel, Russia — underscored the dreadful circumstances facing Russia’s gay community daily. For example, a recent brochure circulating in his hometown warned citizens to be cautious about gays and notify the police. “Gays cannot be detected, but (officials) can be alerted,” the leaflet warned citizens, according to Pisemskiy. “Pay attention to single men who wear bright, colorful clothing. Gays can be pedophiles.”
He found the leaflet on the door of his apartment building. He believes that the leaflet was not official government propaganda but worries that, as one of the implications of the law, it reinforces an already prevalent fear in the LGBT community. “It certainly does not help the efforts by organizations like Phoenix Plus aimed at reducing the number of new HIV infections among gay men,” he added.
Pisemskiy is not the only Russian LGBT-rights activist feeling the increased pressure. Gessen, a well-known, openly lesbian journalist, recently announced that she is moving to the U.S. for fear of losing her three children. Early next year, after the Olympics, the Duma is expected to take up a bill that will authorize state authorities to remove children from same-sex Russian couples. 

Next steps

Attacks on citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity have no place in democratic societies. This is a recalcitrant regime that blatantly disregards its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Individual Freedoms, both of which Russia has ratified. Putin’s Russia is engaged in a broadside attack on civil society by suppressing all those who help create and sustain a vibrant democracy.
Thus, ongoing persecution of the LGBT community is expected to continue, and many Russian gays have predicted the situation will worsen for the community following the conclusion of the Olympic Games.
For these reasons, the U.S. government should take further action. First, it should immediately activate and employ its powers as prescribed under a National Security Presidential Memorandum — International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons, adopted by the Obama administration in 2011 to address the situation in Russia.
In particular, under section 2 of the directive, the U.S. government should take every step to protect vulnerable LGBT Russian refugees and asylum seekers. Nonprofits such as Immigration Equalityshould work closely with the administration, as well as with other groups more broadly that have experience in addressing the needs of refugees and displaced persons. Every effort should be made to assist any Russian gay person who wants to leave the country because of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This will be a challenge to the American LGBT community, which does not have significant experience in helping people resettle in the United States.
Second, diplomatic lessons can also be gleaned from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, adopted by Congress in 1974 with respect to U.S. trade relations, which was passed in response to a “diploma tax” levied against Russian Jews when they attempted to emigrate. Indeed, Abraham  Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recommended that LGBT advocates consider updating or adopting a new “Jackson Vanik” law to address Russia’s newly codified laws persecuting gays. He rightly points out “the disturbing similar oppression of the LGBT community in Russia and that of of Soviet Jewry should instruct us in how to respond.”
Congress’ recent adoption of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 is an example of how the U.S. has communicated its disapproval of the murder of Magnitsky, a Russian accountant and auditor who alleged a corruption scandal by Russian government officials, was arrested and died while incarcerated. Thanks to the law, a number of Russian citizens believed to have been accomplices in his alleged murder have been banned from entering the U.S.
Last, during the Sochi games the International Olympic Committee should make every effort to resist punishing any athlete or ticket-paying fan for wearing a rainbow pin or scarf in solidarity with LGBT Russians and Olympic athletes.  Principle 6 of the committee’s own charter states: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” If the committee chooses to violate its own rule, it will not only aid and abet the worst practices of the Russian hosts but also stain its own reputation for years to come.
Let’s hope the moral courage of world leaders like President Obama will give the IOC a resolve worth respecting.

Image courtesy of the Council for Global Equality.
This article was originally published by Al Jazeera America on December 18, 2013