November 13, 2014 at 6:43 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department, USAID host global LGBT donor conference
Gay News, Washington Blade, Chile

More than 50,000 people marched for LGBT rights in the Chilean capital in May 2013. Advocates from Latin America are among those attending an LGBT donors conference this week at the State Department. (Photo courtesy of JP Catepillán/Movilh)

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development this week are hosting a conference designed to bolster funding of global LGBT advocacy efforts.

Dozens of activists from around the world are attending the three-day gathering at the State Department that began on Wednesday. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Ambassador Kees van Baar of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Javier Vasquez of the Pan American Health Organization, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice Executive Director J. Bob Alotta, Council for Global Equality Chair Mark Bromley and Arcus Foundation Executive Director Kevin Jennings are among those who are also taking part in the conference.

Thomas Shannon, counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, on Wednesday noted the U.S. so far this year has contributed more than $5 million to advance LGBT rights in more than 50 countries through its Global Equality Fund. He said the Obama administration has also worked through its various partnerships to generate an additional $3.4 million in the past fiscal year for this effort.

Shannon also noted the Arcus Foundation has pledged to match corporate contributions to the Global Equality Fund of up to $1 million before the end of 2014.

“That’s a big challenge, but it’s even a bigger opportunity,” he said. “The fact is that we’re spending only a few million dollars a year to promote the human rights of LGBT persons around the globe. When we step back and measure what we’re up against, that’s not nearly enough.”

Shannon announced during his speech that Chile is the latest country to join the Global Equality Fund.

He specifically applauded Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s government for its “exemplary leadership” in building support for a resolution against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted in September.

“We don’t commit to this work because it makes us feel good,” said Shannon. “We do it because it changes lives in dramatic ways.”

The conference began a day after USAID and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law unveiled a study that suggests pro-LGBT laws can spur economic growth in developing countries.

“Greater protection of human rights leads to greater prosperity and greater stability,” said Shannon.

Advocates welcome U.S. financial, ‘moral support’

Consensual same-sex sexual acts remain criminalized in more than 70 countries. Those found guilty of homosexuality face the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and a handful of other nations.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 said “gay rights are human rights” during a landmark speech in Geneva that marked International Human Rights Day. Obama on the same day issued a presidential memorandum that directed agencies that implement U.S. foreign policy to promote LGBT rights in the countries in which they work.

USAID in April 2013 launched the LGBT Global Development Partnership, a $16 million public-private initiative that seeks to promote LGBT rights around the world over four years.

The White House in recent years has also spoken out against anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica, Honduras, Zimbabwe and other countries.

The Obama administration earlier this year cut aid to Uganda after the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act under which those convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts faced life in prison. The White House in June imposed a travel ban against officials responsible for human rights abuses in the East African country.

A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade in May the U.S. has “serious concerns” over the new Bruneian penal code that punishes those convicted of homosexuality by stoning them to death. Obama and other American officials have repeatedly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin over a 2013 law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors.

Xheni Karaj, executive director of the Alliance Against Discrimination of LGBT in Albania, told the Blade on Wednesday the U.S. Embassy has provided “very strong moral support” in her country. She said American officials have also offered financial support to the Albanian LGBT rights movement.

Karaj told the Blade before the LGBT donors conference began that she hopes to meet with representatives of foundations and other organizations that fund global advocacy efforts.

“It will be an opportunity to meet donors that cover work in different fields,” she said. “It will fulfill the needs of each other.”

Beto de Jesus of the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transgender People agreed.

“It is always good to be connected to the global agenda,” Jesus told the Blade on Wednesday before the conference began. “We have activists from all over the world and that strengthens our voices in support of our agenda.”

American efforts to promote global LGBT and human rights have faced criticism in recent months.

Museveni in February rebuked Obama’s criticism of his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, saying Africans “do not seek to impose their views on anybody.” U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is among those who criticized USAID in August after reports emerged the agency launched a clandestine effort to undermine the Cuban government through an HIV prevention workshop and the creation of a so-called “Cuban Twitter” social media network.

Essy, an LGBT rights advocate from the Kenyan city of Mombasa who did not give her last name, told the Blade on Wednesday before the conference began that homosexuality is “imported from the white people — from the West” remains a commonly held belief in the East African country.

She said a Mombasa police officer who attended one of her organization’s sensitivity trainings earlier this year tweeted, among other things, that local authorities “have been forced to be gay.” Essy added people who read the officer’s tweets called Obama gay and applauded Museveni for signing Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.

“When we work with the religious leaders they say oh, someone like you and your colleagues…travel a lot to acquire that behavior from where you go and bring it back here,” said Essy. “We’ve been that way since before Kenya started.”

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

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