A common mistake that minorities make, is to forget that we are merely guests of the majority in Government and Multilateral Institutions. Once our alliances with Governments and Institutions collapse, the door we painfully prised open, closes quickly. Although we’ve made significant progress in gay (and to some extent lesbian) headcount in institutions, we largely remain outside the decision-making process. As a result, our opponents have been quick to halt the modest LGBTI programs and initiatives we had built since 2011.
The backlash to LGBTI rights has already started with a reversal of capacity in institutions. Soon after President Obama left the White House, the handful of LGBTI appointees including Ambassador Randy Berry, once nicknamed the U.S. “Gay Czar”, and Todd Larson who created the LGBTI section at USAID, either left or were re-assigned. In the past year, many senior officials working on Global LGBTI issues had been replaced by junior staff with virtually no power or influence.
This change, and the resulting vulnerability, struck me in recent conversations where I heard the term “inclusive development” replace “human rights of LGBTI people”. Similarly, USAID has stopped supporting foreign trans movements which would have had transgender participation in the military as one of its goals. The meager funds US institutions manage for LGBTI equality, have for the most part remained at the same level, but their impact is diminishing.
A similar collapse of capacity has quietly taken place in UN agencies. Senior gay officials who left, partly because their authorizing environment had overnight become less supportive, were never replaced. Between 2017 and 2019, the limited but important United Nations LGBTI programs started to wither away. UN Human Rights priorities have historically aligned themselves with U.S. policies but in the case of LGBTI rights, the UN system’s engagement seems to have depended on a Ban Ki-Moon, Prince Zeid, Samantha Powers triumvirate.
Straight decision-makers in Governments and UN institutions often did not understand the extent of the suffering of LGBTI people. They could not grasp these notions in the few years between 2011 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her “LGBTI speech” at the United Nations commemorating International Human Rights Day and her departure. They were following their leadership without much passion for the human rights of LGBTI people. Once these leaders were gone, they reverted to a form of homophobia and transphobia that is more ignorant and passive than antagonistic.
In November this year, I sat in a courtesy meeting between a famous LGBTI rights champion in South Asia and a very Senior UN Human Rights Official. In the meeting, he told us that “In Burma, the plight of LGBTI people was of course not comparable to the situation of Rohingya Children”. He said it with a chuckle as if self-evident. This is terrifying not only because indivisibility is the bedrock of human right, but because the little evidence we have of LGBTI youth suicide globally makes it a global health crisis. I could not bring myself to look at the fourth participant, a brave trans woman of color who had just shared details on her transition.
In many of our institutions, LGBTI rights is once again perceived as a frivolous topic, a relic of the Obama-Clinton era which needs to be gradually shelved so international attention can shift to more “serious” issues.
In the aftermath of the Stonewall 50th celebration, it is urgent for the LGBTI community to think of innovative strategies, new alliances and how we can increase the scale of our financing to counter the rapidly declining support for the rights of our brothers and sisters abroad. The engagement of the private sector is one of these solutions. I look forward to working with Out Leadership, the largest and oldest coalition of private companies for LGBTI equality, to make progress in this area. Private solutions in combating criminalization of LGBT+ status, employing LGBT+ refugees or enhancing the flow of foreign funds protecting LGBTI people abroad exist and can be scaled up.
It might be our salvation too, at least until we become invited again by our allies to sit at the table in Governmental and International settings.
The author has spent twenty years in the UN System. More recently, he spent 4 years as a Human Rights Officer in the United Nations Human Rights Office in New York. He was ranked 2nd in the OUTstanding Top 30 LGBT+ Public Sector Leaders 2019 published by Yahoo Finance in November 2019. Since January 15th, 2020 he is Managing Director, Global Initiatives at Out Leadership.