July 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Advancing Obama’s LGBT rights agenda abroad
Todd Larson, USAID, gay news, Washington Blade

Todd Larson (left) is USAID’s Senior LGBT Coordinator. (Photo courtesy of USAID)

A retired U.N. official who spent two decades with the global body has brought his experience promoting LGBT rights issues to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Todd Larson, who worked in a variety of positions at the U.N. between 1990 and 2010 where he spearheaded efforts to extend domestic partner benefits to the same-sex partners of U.N. employees, in March became USAID’s Senior LGBT Coordinator. He was also co-chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission Board of Directors for the majority of the time he was a member between 2007-2013.

Larson’s primary responsibility at USAID is to ensure the agency implements President Obama’s 2011 memorandum that instructed agencies charged with implementing American foreign policy to promote global LGBT rights.

He noted in a 2012 Huffington Post op-ed that highlighted his support of Obama’s efforts to promote global LGBT rights on the eve of his re-election that his partner, who worked for the U.N., was killed shortly after he began working for the global body.

“In the aftermath I had no official standing to do basic things such as obtain copies of reports describing the circumstances surrounding his death,” wrote Larson. “Though I eventually prevailed, under internal U.N. advances shepherded by the Obama administration, I would not face that challenge today.”

He told the Washington Blade during an interview earlier this month that he learned “how to effect change within a large bureaucracy” through his work at the U.N.

“I don’t find engagement in institutional change daunting,” said Larson. “I find it profoundly satisfying, by virtue of the breadth of favorable impact that will last far longer than I. That which makes my work at USAID a particular pleasure is the fact that I’m not working against the tide. I am, rather, working with a team of committed and experienced folks to guide and focus an institution which is already very committed to LGBT inclusion in how it operates both internally and externally.”

Larson spoke with the Blade roughly a week after National Security Adviser Susan Rice announced the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce had joined the LGBT Global Development Partnership, a public-private partnership that USAID launched in April 2013 designed to support LGBT advocacy groups in developing countries. The initiatives’ first two trainings took place in Colombia last year.

USAID on Monday announced during the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, that it will contribute an additional $503 million to the global fight against HIV/AIDS over the next five years through three public-private partnerships.

“Under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), for which USAID is lead implementing agency, I am proud that USAID has invested hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the war against the pandemic — much of this has gone to the benefit of key populations,” said Larson.

Larson, who graduated from Carleton College in 1983, spent two years in the West African country of Togo with the Peace Corps. He earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Washington in 1988.

“When I joined the Peace Corps, fresh out of college and off the farm, it was my first time living and working in the developing world,” Larson told the Blade. “This sounds perhaps Pollyanna-ish, but it was a lesson I needed to learn.”

“People are the same the world over — LGBT or not, in whatever cultural or national setting,” he added. “They all have the same fundamental aspirations: Caring for family, realizing one’s potential, meeting one’s basic needs. This is what motivates all of us.”

Larson told the Blade he feels one of the most important parts of his job at USAID is to “identify the leaders” on the ground in a particular country and “work with them to identify how best to support their communities.”

He said he traveled to Uganda shortly after he joined USAID and spoke with local LGBT rights advocates about how they feel the U.S. should response to a law that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.

LGBT advocates in the East African country last month applauded the Obama administration’s decision to impose travel bans on Ugandan officials responsible for anti-LGBT human rights abuses.

“One should never impose solutions from a distance,” said Larson.

Larson told the Blade that there are “no strings attached” to groups that receive USAID support.

“USAID works to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies,” he said. “USAID recognizes that the inclusion, protection and empowerment of LGBT people is critical, because drawing on the full contributions of the entire population leads to more effective, comprehensive and sustainable development results.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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