February 22, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department meets with LGBT travel representatives

Janice Jacobs, State Department, gay news, Washington Blade

Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, speaks at the Smart Traveler Day roundtable at the State Department on Feb. 20. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Tilghman/State Department)

The State Department on Wednesday hosted a roundtable to discuss its efforts to provide LGBT-specific information to Americans who plan to travel overseas.

“We want all of our citizens to be informed about their destinations abroad and any particular challenges that they may face,” Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said. “We want them to know about the services that are available to them at our embassies and consulates if problems should happen, despite their precautions.”

Jacobs’ comments come five days after the Bureau of Consular Affairs added LGBT-specific information to its website that includes travel warnings, alerts and other country-specific advisories. These include references to “widespread” anti-gay discrimination in Ukraine, efforts to curb “the promotion of homosexuality” in Russian cities and an advisory that urges LGBT travelers to “consider exercising caution when visiting Estonia” because of harassment and violence those who have publicly shown affection have experienced.

The country-specific profiles also include information about HIV/AIDS travel restrictions.

“It’s important that our LGBT audiences know about the resources that we provide to help U.S. citizens travel safe and travel smart,” Jacobs said.

Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of Overseas Citizens Services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, further stressed the protection of Americans “is really the department’s top priority.” She and other officials sought recommendations and other feedback on the Smart Traveler Day initiative from the roughly 50 people who attended the meeting.

“It’s a start,” Bernier-Toth said. “It’s a recognition that this is a community that is on the move, is traveling. It’s an important community, an important stakeholder for us. And we are going to make it as robust and as useful as we can possibly make it.”

White House LGBT liaison Gautam Raghavan also spoke at the gathering.

He pointed out the initiative typifies the Obama administration’s commitment to equality for LGBT people. Raghavan specifically pointed out the extension of benefits to same-sex partners of foreign service officers, new regulations that make it easier to change gender markers on passports and the Global Equality Fund.

“It really shows that this is how this administration does business,” he said. “We are all about advancing equality in every place that we can find.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed in 2011 a during a speech she delivered in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights.” President Obama on the same day directed government agencies to consider a country’s LGBT rights record in the allocation of foreign aid.

The State Department in recent years has spoken out against anti-LGBT violence in Honduras, Jamaica, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other countries.

Clinton and Obama urged the Ugandan government to protect the rights of its LGBT residents following the Jan. 2011 murder of gay activist David Kato amid the debate over the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would impose the death penalty against anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The former first lady last August honored Ugandan LGBT rights advocate Frank Mugisha and other human rights advocates at the U.S. embassy in Kampala, the country’s capital.

“Don’t ever lose context of what has been accomplished by this White House, by this secretary of State that will continue for four more years,” Charlie Rounds of the Forward Motion Group, who also chairs the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Foundation, said. “It’s huge.”

Uganda is among the countries that continue to criminalize homosexuality. Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the seven nations that impose the death penalty upon those found guilty of same-sex sexual acts.

UNAIDS notes Australia, Israel and Singapore are among the 45 countries with travel restrictions against people with HIV/AIDS. Obama in 2009 completed the process former President George W. Bush began that lifted the ban on those with the virus from entering the country.

Bernier-Toth told the Washington Blade during the meeting the State Department rarely urges an LGBT traveler not to travel to a specific country that criminalizes homosexuality.

“The decision whether to travel is always up to the individual,” she said. “Our purpose in life is to put out that information as accurately and in a timely fashion so that people can make those smart decisions.”

IGLTA President John Tanzella added his organization tries to work with a particular destination through affiliated hotels and other travel-related businesses as opposed to boycotting them.

“There’s also gay and lesbian citizens everywhere that we eventually hurt,” he said.

Lisa Peterson of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and Ken Kero-Mentz, president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, also attended the roundtable.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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