U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and Vice President Biden were walking into the auditorium where the U.N. LGBT Core Group was about to meet on Sept. 21, 2016, when they saw Caleb Orozco, an LGBT rights activist from Belize.
Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin of the Belize Supreme Court less than two months earlier ruled the country’s colonial-era law against which Orozco and his group, the United Belize Advocacy Movement, filed a lawsuit in 2010 is unconstitutional.
Biden placed his hands around Orozco’s face as they and Power walked into the U.N. LGBT Core Group event. Orozco became overwhelmed after the vice president thanked him for “what you did” in Belize.
“It was so beautiful,” Power told the Washington Blade on Jan. 5 during a telephone interview from New York, recalling what Biden said to Orozco.
The promotion of LGBT rights abroad has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy during President Obama’s second term.
Obama in 2011 directed agencies that implement U.S. foreign policy to promote LGBT rights abroad. Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who previously worked at the National Security Council, has been a vocal champion of these issues since she assumed her ambassadorship in 2013.
The U.S. voted for two pro-LGBT resolutions the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted in 2011 and 2014 respectively. The U.S. also supported the creation of the U.N.’s first-ever LGBT watchdog that the U.N. Human Rights Council approved in 2016.
The U.S. and Chile in 2015 co-hosted the first-ever U.N. Security Council meeting on an LGBT-specific issue that focused on the so-called Islamic State’s persecution of LGBT Syrians and Iraqis. Subhi Nahas, a gay man from the Syrian city of Idleb who has received asylum in the U.S., is among those who spoke.
The U.N. Security Council last June condemned the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
This condemnation marked the first time it specifically denounced violence based on sexual orientation. Power took more than a dozen other U.N. ambassadors to the Stonewall Inn in New York in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre in order to hold a meeting of the U.N. LGBT Core Group.
Power has met with LGBT and intersex activists from around the world who OutRight Action International, a global advocacy group, invites to the U.N. each December for International Human Rights Day.
She has spoken at events organized by the Human Rights Campaign and the Council for Global Equality.
Caitlyn Jenner met with Power in 2015 to discuss ways that she could work with the U.N. to promote transgender rights around the world. Power also brought 17 U.N. ambassadors to a performance of “Fun Home,” a Broadway play that focuses on a young girl who comes out as a lesbian, in March 2016.
“People are suffering terribly around the world simply because of who they love and who they are,” Power told the Blade. “Their own horizons are bounded. Their own travel plans are constricted because these rights are violated so blatantly and so brutally around the world.”
“That fight has to be waged internationally and a very efficient way to touch a lot of countries in a concerted way and in an aggressive way is the United Nations,” she added. “Moreover, through history the United Nations has played a very important role in norm-setting standards against which each of us is judged.”
Ban Ki-moon’s support of LGBT rights ‘unfailingly moving’
Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in more than 70 countries. Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran are among the handful of nations in which those found guilty of homosexuality face the death penalty.
Power said at a 2015 Council for Global Equality luncheon in D.C. that the U.S. “methodically and aggressively” fought Russia’s unsuccessful efforts to overturn then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s directive to provide spousal benefits to gay U.N. personnel who are legally married.
She described the repeated efforts to suspend Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N.’s first-ever LGBT rights watchdog, as “so gross.” Power nevertheless told the Blade that U.S.-backed efforts to keep the position in place were successful.
“If you had told me in 2009 when I joined the Obama administration that we could mobilize at the ambassadorial level dozens of ambassadors in countries around the globe where this issue (of LGBT rights) remains relatively toxic … and that those ambassadors would march in and see the foreign ministers of those countries, it’s incredible,” she said. “The U.S. government, the foreign service itself changed by these campaigns we run here at the U.N.”
“It’s a repudiation,” added Power. “We will outlast them. We will care more.”
Power also praised Ban for supporting LGBT rights during his tenure.
Ban joined Biden, Orozco, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at last September’s U.N. LGBT Core Group event.
Ban, who is from South Korea, said during a 2015 speech in the Indian capital of New Delhi that anti-sodomy laws “breed intolerance.” The U.N. in 2013 launched the “Free & Equal” campaign that seeks to promote LGBT and intersex rights around the world.
Power described Ban’s personal journey in support of LGBT and intersex rights as “unfailingly moving.”
“Every time I hear him talk about it I find it moving,” Power told the Blade.
She also conceded that Ban has taken a lot of “grief” over his support of the issues.
“If you haven’t been yelled at by a Russian diplomat you maybe just can’t know how fierce that can be,” said Power. “He just takes it and he knows it’s right and he’s pushing it.”
She also noted current U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres supports LGBT and intersex rights.
“He’s very strong on these issues,” said Power. “It’s very important that he carries this forward.”
Power’s LGBT mandate ‘very important’
Orozco told the Blade this week that Power “speaks with an urgent intensity to remind the world that violence is unnecessary” and “humanity cannot be allowed to erode when innocent people suffer.” Other LGBT and intersex advocates around the world expressed similar sentiments.
“Samantha Power’s mandate at the U.N. in relation to LGBTI rights has been very important,” LGBT Federation of Argentina Vice President Esteban Paulón told the Blade on Tuesday.
Ricky “Ricki” Nathanson of the Sexual Rights Center’s Trans Research, Education, Advocacy and Training (TREAT) program in Zimbabwe met Power last month when she was in New York to attend OutRight Action International’s annual summit.
Nathanson told the Blade she “found her to be a powerful ally in fighting the battle for equal rights for the global LGBTI community.” OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern echoed this sentiment.
She told the Blade in an email that Power last month learned that a group of homeless gay men and trans women with HIV had been shot and beaten in Jamaica. Stern said the ambassador sent a text message to her Jamaican counterpart at 5 a.m. “to find out what he was doing to ensure their safety.”
“You can’t make this up,” Stern told the Blade. “It is a rare public official who personally contacts another government at the break of dawn about LGBT people’s safety and dignity.”
“The history books will write about Samantha Power’s transformative leadership for LGBT rights over her years as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.,” she added.
Scott Long, a former Human Rights Watch staffer, has a far different take on Power’s legacy at the U.N.
Long accused Power of pandering to American LGBT voters and advocacy groups “with publicity gestures that mask the absence of results.”
“Meeting with Caitlyn Jenner, or doing a PR tour of the Stonewall Inn regrettably does nothing to empower queers in Cairo or Kampala,” Long told the Blade on Monday.
Long criticized Power for “her appalling refusal to criticize ghastly (LGBT rights) abuses” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries that receive U.S. aid. He also questioned the impact of the U.N. Security Council’s meeting on ISIS, noting the Obama administration has “made no real effort to provide protection for queers in Syria or Iraq who would be further endangered and exposed.”
Reports indicate ISIS militants have publicly executed dozens of men in Syria and Iraq who were accused of committing sodomy. Long said these reported executions increased in the months after the U.N. Security Council meeting.
“If the goal was to save lives, the evidence suggests it may well have been counterproductive,” he told the Blade.
The Blade has not been able to substantiate Long’s claims that execution of men accused of sodomy by ISIS increased after the U.N. Security Council meeting. It has also received information that contradicts his account.
Power has had a chance to speak with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who President-elect Trump has nominated to succeed her at the U.N.
Power told the Blade she will leave her post with no regrets about the way she advocated for LGBT rights.
“If someone could dream and I could see a pathway we would do it,” she said. “There’s not the one that goes away.”
Power said she plans to spend the remainder of her ambassadorship “engaging with the new team to ensure this new DNA” remains in place and Ban’s legacy in support of LGBT and intersex rights “becomes a virtuous propellant.”
She also told the Blade the next step in advancing these issues at the U.N. is to have a “clean embrace” of them at the U.N. General Assembly. Power said countries in Europe, Latin America and in the Pacific could make this goal possible in the coming years.
“We are chipping away,” she said.