June 29, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Lawmakers seek update on State Dept. LGBT policy

U.S. House members concerned with LGBT rights and foreign affairs last week called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to provide an update on pro-LGBT policy changes underway at the State Department.

In a letter dated June 24, members of the LGBT Equality Caucus seek an update on several topics, including U.S. assistance with the investigations of anti-gay crimes overseas; the extent to which the State Department’s regional bureaus are focusing on LGBT issues; and what the State Department is doing to prepare Foreign Service officers for dialogue on LGBT issues.

The 45 names on the letter are noteworthy because two signers are also leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the Republican chair of the panel, and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking Democrat. The State Department didn’t respond to the letter in time for this posting upon immediate request from the Washington Blade.

In the letter, lawmakers make particular note of anti-gay activity in Uganda and Honduras. With respect to Uganda, the letter expresses concern over the murder earlier this year of David Kato, an activist who worked against pending legislation in the country that would institute the death penalty for homosexual acts. Kato was brutally beaten to death after a publication in Uganda identified him as gay.

The letter also expresses concern over “recent murders of LGBT activists” in Honduras. Lawmakers write the Obama administration has issued strong statements against anti-gay violence in both countries, but want more action.

“We commend you for your ongoing efforts to push for effective investigation and prosecutions in those cases,” the letter states. “In that context, we would appreciate more detail on what assistance, if any, the United States, is providing to the governments of Uganda and Honduras in those investigations.”

On Monday, Clinton addressed during her Pride speech the extent to which Foreign Service officers in Honduras encouraged action after investigations into 30 anti-LGBT crimes in the past year appeared to be heading nowhere.

“Then our embassy team got involved,” Clinton said. “They publicly called on the Honduran government to solve the murders, bring the perpetrators to justice, do more to protect all Hondurans from harm. Soon after, the government announced it was creating a task force to investigate and prevent hate crimes. And with the help of a United States prosecutor and detective, which our embassy arranged to be made available to assist in this effort, we are making progress.”

For other issues, lawmakers base much of their requests on the speech Clinton gave last year for Pride in which she said the State Department was implementing several policy changes to benefit the LGBT community abroad. Clinton’s speech was renowned for her ad-libbed line, “human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights,” which has been echoed in other foreign policy statements on LGBT issues from the Obama administration.

The letter recalls Clinton said during her speech last year she has asked the State Department’s regional bureaus to enhance the reporting on the condition of LGBT communities abroad; has elevated the dialogue with which Foreign Service officers discuss LGBT issues overseas; and has implemented changes to grant LGBT people asylum in the United States. Lawmakers seek updates on each of these areas.

For example, on helping LGBT refugees, lawmakers say they would “appreciate more information on the progress made by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to achieve this goal, as well as on resettlement procedures for LGBT refugees who face imminent danger.”

The letter also asserts that Clinton specified in previous correspondence with Congress that the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor has set up a task force to enhance interdepartmental and interagency coordination of LGBT issues overseas. Lawmakers seek an update on this process and “what efforts have been made to integrate these issues within the strategic planning process at the State Department and at the interagency level.”

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said Ros-Lehtinen’s signature on the letter is significant because she has a powerful voice in foreign affairs as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and because her name makes the missive a bipartisan request.

“It’s a clear signal that support for the fundamental human rights of LGBT communities should not be a partisan issue,” Bromley said.

Bromley added that Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress and chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, deserves special credit because she worked to organize the letter in a bipartisan way.

NOTE: This posting has been updated.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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