June 6, 2015 at 11:36 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department hosts annual Pride event
Heather Higginbottom, Department of State, gay news, Washington Blade

Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

GLIFAA members and LGBT rights advocates from Uganda and Turkey were among those who attended the State Department’s annual Pride celebration on Friday.

Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to speak, but he remains at a Boston hospital where he continues to recover from a broken right femur he suffered last weekend during a cycling accident in France. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom spoke in his place.

“The secretary is doing well and is on the road to recovery,” said Higginbottom as she began her remarks.

Higginbottom noted the State Department’s largest health insurance plan now covers care related to sex reassignment surgery. Kerry in February formally introduced Randy Berry, a career Foreign Service officer, as the country’s first special envoy to promote global LGBT rights.

“He’s helping to spread the word that regardless of past practice and cultural difference, its simply wrong to pretend people are criminals because of who they are or who they love,” said Higginbottom.

Higginbottom stressed the State Department opposes “any effort to discriminate” when issuing visas to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service personnel who are posted overseas.

“We don’t have gay spouses, we have spouses,” she said. “We don’t have lesbian families. We have families. We refuse to accept that equal treatment by our foreign counterparts is too much to ask.”

GLIFAA President Selim Ariturk made a similar point.

“We know that some host countries openly say they don’t want families that look like ours,” he said. “We serve under an administration that appointed more out ambassadors than all other administrations combined. Just as our Foreign Service shows how American women and men work together and how Americans of all colors and religions work together, so too should we should be proud of all the embassies where gay staff and straight staff and transgender staff are working together as one American team.”

Higginbottom also highlighted State Department’s Global Equality Fund, an initiative that seeks to promote LGBT rights around the world. She also applauded Boysan Yakar of Lambda Istanbul, a Turkish advocacy group, and Pepe Onziema of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT rights organization, who took part in a panel discussion that Mindy Michaels of Freedom House moderated.

“We owe it to both of you and to ourselves to stand with our brothers and sisters like you around the world who are on the front lines of this struggle everyday, often at enormous personal risk,” said Higginbottom.

Onziema said the international support his organization received to fight the Anti-Homosexuality Act under which those found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts would have faced life in prison. The Constitutional Court of Uganda last August struck down the controversial law, concluding that Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga allowed a vote on it without the necessary quorum.

“We see ourselves as humans,” said Onziema. “We are Ugandan citizens.”

Yakar also spoke about his organization’s advocacy efforts in Turkey.

“If you don’t stand up for your rights, no one’s going to take care of you,” he said.

The State Department in recent months has faced criticism over its response to Egypt’s ongoing LGBT rights crackdown and other issues that include claims the Trans-Pacific Partnership contains “enforceable” human rights safeguards. Higginbottom on Friday did not mention the possible elimination of domestic partner benefits for unmarried gay State Department employees in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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

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