February 5, 2015 at 6:49 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department envoy to promote global LGBT rights
John Kerry, State Department, gay news, Washington Blade, GLIFAA

Secretary of State John Kerry later this month will officially announce his agency’s new envoy who will promote global LGBT rights. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Secretary of State John Kerry later this month will appoint a special envoy within the State Department who will promote global LGBT rights.

A senior State Department official on Thursday confirmed to the Washington Blade the report that first appeared in the Boston Globe.

The official told the Blade the State Department is in “the final vetting stages” for the post, but said the envoy will be an “openly gay Foreign Service officer.”

“It’s been long in the making because the secretary insisted the envoy be a career Foreign Service officer from inside the institution, someone who is part of the fabric of the institution, a diplomat by training,” said the official.

Thursday’s announcement comes less than a year after U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) first introduced a bill — the International Human Rights Defense Act — that would have created an LGBT envoy within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Markey and California Congressman Alan Lowenthal reintroduced the proposal late last month after President Obama made LGBT-specific references during his annual State of the Union address.

“I welcome the State Department’s action on my call to make defending LGBT rights a foreign policy priority,” said Markey on Thursday in a statement. “This special envoy position at the State Department will be a global model for defending LGBT rights around the world.”

“The appointment of a LGBT special envoy is another step to making sure that our fundamental American ideals of equality, equity, and diversity are properly reflected in our foreign policy,” added Lowenthal. “As a nation, we can, and should, take a leading role in defending the rights of all human beings across the globe to live, love, and prosper.”

LGBT rights advocates were quick to welcome Thursday’s announcement.

“This is a welcome development and historic moment in the U.S. government’s progress in promoting the dignity and equality of LGBT people around the world,” said Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First described the announcement as “a major milestone in the fight for equality worldwide.”

“The trend of deplorable homophobic and transphobic legislation puts LGBT persons, especially youth, at significant risk for homelessness, violence, family rejection and lack of access to HIV prevention, testing and care,” Amanda Keifer of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT young people, told the Blade. “In too many countries LGBTQ youth are alone and afraid just because of who they are. Having a LGBT envoy to stand by them has the potential to make a difference.”

Donnya Piggott, founder of Barbados Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination, told the Blade as she discussed the special envoy that a government minister said he would rather resign than support a proposal to make her country’s domestic violence law gender neutral because “he is so against homosexuality.” She added this incident “clearly shows that our governments really don’t seem to care” about LGBT rights.

“It’s a warming feeling that someone does,” Piggott told the Blade, referring the State Department’s envoy. “It’s warming that people care and are willing to create mechanisms like this to protect the lives and defend the rights of LGBT people.“

Envoy urged to reach out to advocates ‘on the ground’

The appointment of a special envoy is the latest in a series of steps the State Department has taken to support global advocacy efforts since President Obama in 2011 directed agencies that implement U.S. foreign policy to promote LGBT rights in the countries in which they work.

The agency’s Global Equality Fund last year contributed more than $5 million to advance LGBT rights in more than 50 countries. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development last November hosted a conference in D.C. designed to bolster funding of global LGBT advocacy efforts.

The Obama administration last June issued a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for human rights abuses. The White House in December announced Gambia is no longer eligible to take part in program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to access U.S. markets amid growing concerns over the nation’s LGBT crackdown and other human rights abuses.

The U.S. in August 2013 began issuing immigrant visas to same-sex couples in the same way it does for heterosexual ones.

Kerry a few weeks later attended the first-ever LGBT ministerial event that took place during the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The State Department in November 2013 for the first time officially acknowledged the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Activists over the last year have urged Obama to use a 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act that freezes the assets of Russian citizens and officials directly responsible for human rights violations and bans them from entering the U.S. to punish those behind the Kremlin’s anti-gay crackdown. The Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Council for Global Equality and other LGBT advocacy groups last month called upon the White House to ban Gambian President Yahya Jammeh from entering the U.S. and to freeze his American assets that include a multi-million dollar home in Potomac, Md.

“President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown tremendous leadership in championing the rights of LGBT people abroad,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin on Thursday in a statement in response to the creation of an LGBT envoy within the State Department. “We look forward to working closely with whomever is selected for this new role, as we continue to push back against laws and attitudes that lead to human rights violations against LGBT people.”

The State Department’s announcement comes a week after U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said during a House subcommittee hearing that he does “not construe homosexual rights as human rights.” Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents Foreign Service personnel, continue to urge the agency not to phase out domestic partner benefits for unmarried gay couples in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a Cuban advocate and blogger, told the Blade on Thursday he welcomes an LGBT envoy within the State Department.

Rodríguez nevertheless expressed some reservations.

“You should not be meddling in the internal affairs of other countries under this or any other pretext,” he told the Blade.

Keifer stressed the LGBT envoy should “first take the time to listen” to advocates “on the ground to ensure that the most culturally appropriate and relevant actions are taken to further LGBTQ rights around the world.” She also urged Congress to pass the International Human Rights Defense Act so the position within the State Department becomes permanent.

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

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