October 21, 2010 at 6:05 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Gay diplomat presses LGBT issues at int’l conference

Michael Guest, former U.S. ambassador to Romania, headed a delegation during the human rights portion of an annual conference for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A gay diplomat led a U.S. delegation at an international conference earlier this month that touched on the importance of LGBT rights as a human rights issue.

Michael Guest, former U.S. ambassador to Romania, headed a delegation of about 25 U.S. diplomats during the human rights portion of an annual review conference for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. The review conference took place between Sept. 30 and Oct. 8 in Warsaw, Poland.

The Warsaw Review Conference was a primer engagement for trans-Atlantic countries to discuss human rights principles — including hate crimes against LGBT people and the freedom to association to have Pride celebrations across the globe — in anticipation of a later OSCE summit that this year is set to take place in December in Astana, Kazakhstan.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Guest said that his sexual orientation made his designation as head of the delegation representational of the Obama administration’s stated principle that international LGBT rights are human rights.

“I also think that it made an impact with other delegations,” Guest added. “It was clearly a prominent feature of my biography, so there were a number of delegation members that come and it’s representative in their eyes as a sense of progress that an openly gay man would be appointed.”

Still, Guest said he thinks his 26-year service as a diplomat was the primary reason he was selected for the position and noted that during much of his career he focused on OSCE policy.

“I dealt with it at the time when all these changes were happening in Europe in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and when most of the commitments on fundamental freedoms and human rights were signed by the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union and the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe,” he said.

Guest attained notoriety in 2007 when he retired from the State Department in protest because it didn’t offer certain benefits — such as security training and free medical care — to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers. The situation has since been rectified by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, which took part in the review conference as an non-governmental organization, said the selection of an out gay man to lead the U.S. delegation was significant because previous administrations have been reluctant to incorporate LGBT issues in foreign policy.

“The United States in the past has been reluctant to address LGBT concerns within this forum,” Bromley said. “I think the fact that they selected Michael Guest as someone who is openly gay and works with organizations that promote issues on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was an important statement.”

The OSCE was established in 1975 after 35 trans-Atlantic countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, signed the Helsinki Accords and agreed to take part in annual meetings. During the Cold War, the OSCE served as a forum where the United States could raise human rights and security issues with Warsaw Pact countries.

But Guest said the tone of the conference has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to become less of an East-West dialogue and more of a pan-Atlantic conversation.

“It’s an opportunity to look at what has been done and is being done on human rights issues ranging from migration to freedoms of assembly and freedom of religion, to human trafficking, to capital punishment, to gender balance to hate crimes and intolerance — the whole range of human rights related issues,” Guest said.

During the course of the discussion on human rights, Guest impressed upon the 56 participating states in the conference the importance of inclusion of LGBT rights as human rights issues.

The former ambassador mentioned LGBT issues during his opening statement at the conference’s plenary session, including bias-motivated violence against LGBT people and the right to freedom of association at Pride celebrations. Such activities in Eastern Europe, where the conference took place, are often the targets of hostility and violence.

Guest lamented human rights abuses such as “when civil society assemblies are denied permits on spurious grounds, or police allow bigots to attack Gay Pride parades.” The former ambassador also acknowledged the United States has more to accomplish on human rights issues because “equality under the law continues to elude those of us who are gay or transgender.”

During a later discussion, Guest also appealed to governments in attendance to implement hate crimes protections measures and recalled his own personal experience as the victim of bias-motivated violence.

After a hostile non-governmental organization equated homosexuality to pedophilia and necrophilia at the end of the meeting, Guest responded that the connection was offensive and such inflammatory allegations can be responsible for hate crimes.

Guest told the Blade he raised LGBT issues during the conference because he believes they should be brought up in any comprehensive discussion of human rights.

“We raised it in questions of freedom to assembly, freedom of association and in the course of the discussions on hate crimes and tolerance,” he said. “We had some good news stories to tell from the standpoint of the United States, such as the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act and the overall trend in hate crimes going down, but the negative, of course, being that the reported number of LGBT hate crimes and hate crimes against immigrants has, in fact, gone up.”

LGBT issues were also raised by non-governmental institutions at the conference, including the Council for Global Equality.

Bromley delivered a statement at the conference on behalf of his organization — as well as two European international LGBT right groups — that called for passage of hate crimes protections in other countries as well as the decriminalization of sodomy.

Emphasizing the importance of accurate documentation and effective prosecution of bias-motivated violence against LGBT people, Bromley said hate crimes won’t go away as long as countries have anti-gay statutes on the books.

“As a first step, we call on all participating states in the OSCE region to remove any laws that continue to criminalize homosexual conduct or identity or the public dissemination of scientifically supported information on homosexuality and sexual health,” Bromley said.

Bromley told the Blade that discussion of LGBT rights at the conference was significant because the U.S. delegation had only begun to bring up such issues last year after the start of the Obama administration.

“We’re very pleased to see that level of emphasis from the head of the delegation, but a number of other governments also spoke to the issue, so it’s certainly gaining ground and giving additional attention to LGBT hate crimes,” Bromley said.

The delegations from other countries and other non-governmental organizations at the conference responded to the U.S. delegation’s promotion of LGBT rights in varied ways. Guest said the session in which he spoke personally about hate crimes issues caused delegations from other countries to take note.

“It was a very quiet session,” Guest said. “People were listening very quietly, and a lot of people did respond specifically to what I said including non-governmental organizations. A number of delegations told us afterwards — either to me directly or others on the team — how that more personal approach really had resonated with them.”

Guest said a representative from the Catholic Church in Vatican City was among those that approached him afterward and mentioned that talking about hate crimes in a personal manner was “a way that we could build bridges.”

But Guest said the outcome was different for discussions of freedom of association and the right to hold Pride celebrations. The former ambassador speculated these talks made less of an impact on the delegation because they had already come up at last year’s conference.

“I think it’s just that because Gay Pride issues have come up before, there were some delegations that maybe expected it and maybe didn’t really reflect as much as might otherwise be the case,” Guest said.

So-called “ex-gay” groups and other organizations hostile to LGBT rights were also present.

Bromley said Redeemed Lives, a Christian ministry, spoke out at the conference about bias-motivated violence against “ex-gay” people for giving up what the ministry called a “homosexual lifestyle.”

“That was somewhat alarming to see a strong showing of ex-gay activists who were waving issues that were, as far as I know, not legitimate concerns,” Bromley said. “I don’t doubt that there could be violence directed at ex-gay individuals, but I never heard of any reports to that effect.”

Reparative therapy programs that seek to change sexual orientation have been widely discredited by major medical and psychiatric associations around the world.

A spokesperson for Redeemed Lives deferred comment to a statement the organization made at the conference, which was published on the OSCE website. In the statement, Mario Bergner, director of Redeemed Lives, stresses the importance passing legislation to protect the free speech of Christian academics and clerics to “teach the sexual morality of their faith traditions” so that they can help those with “unwanted sexual desires.”

“Such people include Christians with sexual addictions for whom freedom means living free of internet pornography, Christians with compulsive sexual behaviours for whom freedom is fidelity in marriage, and Christians, like myself, with unwanted same sex attractions for whom freedom is the self emancipation that comes through effective pastoral care or psychological treatment for homosexuality,” Berger said.

Bromley said the organization’s concern about hate crimes against people who identify as “ex-gay” is ironic because the Matthew Shepard Act already protects them.

“It would actually be covered under our current hate crime law because it would still be violence on the basis of sexual orientation,” Bromley said.

But the conference nonetheless provided a forum to discuss international LGBT rights as a human rights issue.

Guest noted progress was made at the conference, although he said more work is needed.

“I think there are moments like that where you feel that you are making headway in getting people to understand that these are issues that governments have to take seriously,” Guest said. “And then, there are other times where it seems to go right past — certainly on some the freedom of association things.”

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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