LiveAtState: Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People

Daniel Baer
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Brussels, Belgium
June 20, 2013

This video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.

Moderator: Welcome to LiveAtState from Brussels. Today's guest is Daniel Baer, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. My name is Nia Garnakelis and I'll be asking him your questions today. Our topic is on the human rights of LGBT issues. Dr. Baer, welcome to LiveAtState from Brussels. Thank you for joining us today.

Dan Baer: Thanks for having me.

Moderator: Let's start off with some of your thoughts on LGBT issues as a fundamental human rights issue, and then we'll turn to questions.

Dan Baer: Sure, well I think you know over the last few years, the United States has stepped up in a way that has been visible in many places around the world in defending the human rights of LGBT people, and, you know, the way we see this is actually as a logical continuation of the role that the United States has played for many decades in supporting human rights of all people around the world. And whether you're working within a country or within a town or within the world there are often people who get left out once you establish standards, or recognize standards of human rights, there are often people who get left out and left behind, and part of the work that's important for those of us who are working to support human rights protections is to make sure that people aren't left behind. And one of the most likely determinants -- there are many determinants that make somebody more likely to be left behind, women are more likely to be left behind and left out of human rights protections, members of minority groups like religious minorities or ethnic minorities are often more likely to be left behind, and LGBT people in many places around the world are more likely to be left behind. And so this seems a logical area of work for a country whose foreign policy is premised on a commitment to human rights for everyone.

Moderator: Thank you. Secretary Kerry gave his first policy address yesterday on LGBT issues. What are the main messages that Secretary made that you would like to share with the journalists?

DAS Baer: Well, I would first of all urge the journalists who are watching to take a look at Secretary Kerry's remarks from yesterday, because I think one of the things about them is that they were deeply personal, and so my ability to replicate them in his voice and with his stories is, it makes it difficult. And his remarks are available on the State Department website at But I think you know part of what he did is to put this in a broader frame. Secretary Kerry has been fortunate to have a long career in public service, and one of the things that I appreciated about his remarks was the way that he talked about how he, as a public servant, has seen this issue evolve over time in our domestic context, and indeed internationally. And the way that personal experiences for him have made clear the importance of engaging on human rights for LGBT people as part of our larger project of engaging on human rights for everyone.

Moderator: Thank you. So, Dr. Baer, you've played a significant role in Obama's administration on LGBT policy abroad. What do you think have been the biggest accomplishments so far?

DAS Baer: Well, I think, strangely, I think the biggest accomplishment is probably the least flashy accomplishment, which is that, as you start to integrate a new policy, a new strand of policy, of foreign policy, or new policy in any government agency, you know, at the beginning, there's you know, big events, speeches, etc., but in order to really make it happen, and to make it happen day to day, you really need to institutionalize it, and one of the things that we've succeeded in doing is really supporting and working with the great ideas that we have in our colleagues around the world, at 250 posts around the world, to make sure that this is not just something that happens in one speech from the Secretary, but something that becomes part of the day to day work of our foreign policy, of implementing our foreign policy, and I think one of the greatest successes is that there are hundreds of people around the world who work for the State Department, and USAID, who are diplomacy and development assistance professionals, for whom this is some part of their daily work, it's just part of what we do, and so strangely, or paradoxically, by becoming routine, we have succeeded.

Moderator: Thank you. And what are some key remaining challenges that you see?

DAS Baer: Well, I think there are a number of remaining challenges. A lot of the challenges are practical, or implementation challenges. The President obviously issued a memorandum to the agencies of the federal government that are engaged abroad on December 6th, 2011, the same day that Secretary Clinton gave, former Secretary Clinton gave her speech in Geneva articulating our policy. But it takes time to implement it. There's, there's, you know, work left to be done in making sure that we're doing everything we can for example in protecting LGBT refugees, there's a system set up to protect refugees, to help refugees get to safety, and we have to make sure that in its practical implementation we're doing everything we can to work with partners and work with UNHCR to make sure people are trained to recognize unique needs, etc., and so there's always more work to be done in that respect. I think, you know, as we look around the world, the thing that stands out perhaps as the most urgent problem is laws that criminalize consensual same-sex conduct. Laws that criminalize being gay, criminalize people for who they love, even where they're not often enforced, obviously where they are enforced they result in people being thrown in jail for a terrible reason, but even where they're not enforced they send a signal to the rest of the population about who counts, and who's worthy of protections, and that itself creates the kind of environment where discrimination and stigma occur, and where people are more likely to get beaten up, or suffer abuses. And so I would say removing laws that criminalize being gay is one of the urgent pieces of work that remains.

Moderator: So we'll turn to our journalists. We have questions from Robbie Corey-Boulet with The Associated Press in Dakar, Senegal: What would you say have been the most significant and/or concrete achievements in the area of U.S. promotion of human rights of LGBT people overseas since the memorandum signed by President Obama in December 2011?

DAS Baer: You know, I think the -- as I was saying a couple of minutes ago, I think the most concrete achievements are the way that it's become part of the daily work of the State Department and USAID. I think that, you know, it is not to be understated the significance of having a U.S. Secretary of State give the first major address by a foreign minister, around the world, on these issues. You know, she's -- former Secretary Clinton spoke for 45 minutes in Geneva, she spoke to a hall full of delegates from other countries, and laid out the case for why this remains urgent, an urgent human rights issue and part of American foreign policy. And having that articulation of policy is in itself a significant achievement. Obviously you can't just let that stand, and her speech wasn't actually a kick-off event, we were already doing a lot of things, but we have to keep doing them. I think one of the significant achievements that we've had so far is that in many places around the world our embassies are now much, in much better touch with local activists and advocates who are making the case for change from within. And you know, if changes are going to come, if societies are going to become more fair, if bad laws are going to be thrown off the books and good laws are going to be put on the books, those changes are most likely to come not from the United States saying that those changes are needed, but from people within society saying these changes are needed. And so one of the achievements, I think, is actually that we are connecting, in a more consistent way, with the internal change-makers, the people who really will be the agents of change in many places around the world, and doing what we can to lend support to them, as we see fit. And so, that's been a real, it's a very fulfilling area of work for us, and it's consistent with our broader support for civil society around the world.

Moderator: Great, thank you. Robbie's second question is: What is your response to criticism that the State Department and the U.S. government generally have not been sufficiently vocal in their response to anti-gay legislation like that introduced in Liberia in 2012?

DAS Baer: You know, I mean, I guess it depends how you define "vocal," there have been numerous instances in the last few years where we have spoken out in various countries, in various contexts, at the UN, other places, about our concerns either about legislation, or abuses, and so we do speak out publicly. But it's not, our sense is that it's not the case that in every instance the most productive way for us to be engaged is to issue public statements. There are many cases where we might urgently reach out to the prime minister or the president or reach out to members of parliament and convey our concerns. And we think that in some cases, that makes more sense. In all cases, one of the things that we try to do is to listen to civil society, to listen to the people on the ground, take our cues from them, and understand what they think will be successful, because it's their efforts that we're trying to reinforce and certainly we want to make sure that our, our efforts are complimentary to those, and the best way we can do that is to listen to them. So you know I think there's a mix of approaches, and we have to, one of the things that we're, that we've done over the last few years, is be able to kind of tailor our approach to the context. And so there's not one, one rule for how you do this, you try to make sense of what's going on in a particular place and how you can be most productive.

Moderator: Great, thank you. So we have a question coming from Jake Okechukwu Effoduh from Nigeria. It's a really long question. He's a freelance radio presenter with the BBC, Media Action, and an LGBT advocate. And so he's asking, Sir Micheal Posner made a statement that on the issue of LGBT rights and issues around the world, “Rather than stand in the sidelines, America has decided to get in”. You also said something in the lines of “The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is a global challenge and one that is central to the United States committing to promoting human rights”. In Nigeria, both Houses of the National Assembly have approved of the passage of a same sex marriage prohibition law which seeks to jail to LGBT persons for 14 years if they get married - And I'm sorry there is a continuation- including if they are witness to any union, I believe the question is: This bill is only awaiting assent by the President. Is there any intervention from the U.S. to this? Has anything been done? What do you think is the best strategy to protect the millions of LGBT -excuse me- Nigerians who are in fear?

DAS Baer: You know, we've followed the progress of that bill closely, I know that it passed the house recently. We haven't seen the final version of the bill, and I know that it hasn't yet been signed. You know, as we do everywhere, it's not - the opposition to legislation that would criminalize either talking about or making an NGO, coming together to form an NGO, or things like this, it's not a, it's not an opposition for our sake. It's an opposition because it's inconsistent with internationally recognized human rights principles, it's an opposition because it's counter-productive to many of the other objectives that countries have. You know one of the many parts of Secretary Clinton's Geneva speech, that I think is worth remembering, is that she pointed out that societies that are more inclusive, that are able to embrace diversity, are more successful economically, are able to harness the talents of all of their members, they're more able to tackle public health challenges because when you leave some people out of your public health interventions, or when you stigmatize a population, like the LGBT population, you drive the challenge into the shadows. And you're not able to protect your whole population. And so there are all kinds of reasons why, it's not just that it doesn't make sense for, that it's a threat to LGBT people, when laws are passed and put into places, it's a threat to all members of a society. And so, you know, that's the kind of conversation that we have in many places around the world.

Moderator: Thank you. We have-- the next question comes from Marina Mirkovic from Keyconnection media in Serbia: From whom does the LGBT suffer discrimination the most?

DAS Baer: Wow. I mean, I think that's a, an interesting question. I think that probably you'd find a different answer to that both in different places and from different people in different places. I think, you know, many LGBT people probably feel like their families are a place where they are discriminated against. Obviously, that's part of the reason why they seek, as we all do, an environment in which we can feel like we can bring our best self to the table and harness our talents and create a fulfilling life. You know, legal protections can be very helpful to people when they feel that they're discriminated against at school, or in the workplace, etc. I don't know whether there's a single answer to that, but I think one of the things that's clear is that people in government, people who are in public leadership positions, whether that's in government or they're public figures because of their professional achievements, they could be artists, etc, they can really make a positive contribution. People in government can make a positive contribution by creating the legal protections that people need in order to combat discrimination. And people in the public sphere, more generally, have a contribution to make because they can contribute to the kind of environment in which societal discrimination is less likely. They can speak out and talk about, even where it's unpopular, and talk about the importance of building the kind of society that embraces everyone, and that recognizes that all people are born free, and equal in dignity and rights as the universal declaration says.

Moderator: Ok, thank you. We have another question, coming from Mathieu Taschereau from Europolitics: If possible, could you compare LGBT Policies between the U.S. and the European Union. And what lessons could the U.S. or the E.U. take from each other?

DAS Baer: You know, I mean I think in general the U.S. and the EU, this is an area of, where we like many others with respect to Human Rights, where we have good dialogue and good cooperation. I think, you know, we are… I've been in Brussels the last couple of days, it's one of the topics I've discussed with my EU colleagues and so we are eager to work, not only with our European colleagues but with partners in Latin America, the South Africans have taken an enormously important leadership role in the UN context, partners in Nepal and elsewhere in Asia. So, you know, I think there is a growing number of states that recognize that this is part of the human rights work of our time and that want to work together and partner, to be supportive of, particularly of advocates and activists in the places where change is most needed. You know, I don't know whether there are specific lessons that certainly…far be it for me to say specific lessons that people ought to learn from us. I think that one of the things that any society that has made progress on combating discrimination whether that is on a racial lines, on religious lines or discrimination against LGBT people, having that, going through that experience makes you appreciate more the challenges that it entails for others but also have a good story to tell, a story that can be studied and learned from about how to make it happen, sooner, better and more inclusively.

Moderator: Thank you. So now on a more general level, how does the United States talk with foreign governments about LGBT issues?

DAS Baer: It varies. I guess the one thing that I would say is that we talk candidly and frankly, you know, Americans are known for that, This is an issue which though one might says sensitive in some places is one that it's been clearly articulated part of our foreign policy. I don't think anyone is surprised when we either raise concerns about a particular case of somebody suffering violence or abuse or concerns about a law or concerns more generally about the importance of making inclusive public programs on something like combating HIV or something like that. So we raise with a number of different actors in foreign governments on a number of different levels, our Ambassadors in many places, our Secretary of State obviously does in many places and you know on a day to day basis the diplomats that are working in embassies and consulates around the world and the assistance professionals are engaged on a regular basis with foreign governments. I think one of the things that we probably try to do in every place is point to the fact that in pretty much any place this isn't just a conversation that we are having with foreign governments but it's a conversation that their own citizens are having or trying to have with them as well. And so again one of the things that we would try to reinforce is the notion that this part of responding to your own citizenry because part of a government's responsibility is to not only be steered by the fears or the prejudices of a majority but also to make sure they're paying attention to protecting everyone and everyone equally and there are fearless activists and advocates in many places around the world who are making the case for those protections and those are the people who we hope the governments are also listening to and engaging with.

Moderator: Thank you. I just want to make a quick reminder to those who are logging in. If you are, please use the question field at the bottom of your screen to submit your questions. So, another question: How does the U.S. respond to the argument that human rights for LGBT people, or even homosexuality, is a Western concept and doesn't even exist in some countries?

DAS Baer: You know, there's no scientific evidence to suggest that, and in fact all things to the, all scientific evidence to the contrary, that gay people, LGBT people have existed throughout time, in every place, in every culture, in every religion. And this is not a Western thing, this is a universal thing. If anything, the laws that make being gay criminal are a Western thing, many of them are still on the books from colonial times, they were exported by colonial powers, and put on the books in many places around the world. So if there's anything that's Western, it's actually the criminalization of LGBT people that's Western. You know, and human rights, the fact is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other human rights instruments, are abundantly clear, that human rights apply to everyone, and there is absolutely no reason to see LGBT people as separate and apart from that. And societies will be stronger, it's-- it's a work in progress, but societies, all societies, and you know my own country is still a work in progress in many respects. And, you know, we get stronger every time we do better at protecting the equal rights of everyone.

Moderator: Thank you. So how do events in the U.S. like the Defense of Marriage Act case, or the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell impact our conversations on LGBT issues overseas?

DAS Baer: Well I think certainly like any human rights issue, events at home affect your credibility, they affect the story that you have to tell, they have-- they affect the perspective that you bring when you engage overseas. And so I can remember when I started this job, a few years ago, when I would engage on, say, discrimination in employment for LGBT people, and people would say but you still have Don't Ask Don't Tell, so, you know, don't you have this problem too? And there's kind of two answers: one is, one is that, you know, we're working on it, and the second is that, you know, human rights advocacy, particularly within a foreign policy, isn't about saying "I'm perfect, and you should, you should be perfect like me," there's a, universal standards are something for all of us to aspire to. You don't have to be perfect to support them. Supporting them does mean engaging in good faith and putting hard effort into making your own government more perfect. And I think, you know, the Obama administration has prioritized, on a number of issues, the efforts to build a more perfect union, and this is one of them. And so the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, I think, was a significant achievement, and it has made my job easier in the sense that it's something that I can point to instead of as something we're still working on, as something that we, that we've accomplished. And that was a tough step in our political system, and that, that demonstrates that we recognize that things can be difficult, but that they're possible, and that effort should be put behind them.

Moderator: Thank you, we're going to turn back to our journalists now. We do have a question from Marina Mirkovic from Keyconnection media again from Serbia: Last year Pride Parade in Serbia was cancelled because it was voted "unsafety". How can LGBT people feel safe and what is obligation of every country in the world to provide to LGBT people to use their rights?

DAS Baer: You know, this is an issue that comes up in a number of places, and you know, it is, it is providing protection for people to gather, to peacefully assemble and march or demonstrate, is one of the things that governments have to do. And it's actually really hard work. It takes a lot of planning, sometimes it takes, you know, doubling up on shifts for police, if you know that there's going to be counter protesters, or if you know that there's the possibility of that, you, it is a tough challenge. But it is something that governments everywhere are, many governments are working on, and it's something that governments can actually, this is a great example of a place where governments can help each other, where sharing technical capacity on how you plan for protecting people, as, who gather peacefully, who peacefully assemble, you know, that's something that actually we have the opportunity to make progress on going forward. But it's certainly a very real challenge. I think, you know, it is a success for the government when they are able to organize the police in a way that protects the rights of their citizens to peacefully assembly and demonstrate. It is a success for the government because they have made it possible for, and protected the human rights of their citizens, And so, you know, we should recognize in the places where that's difficult, that it is difficult, and that when governments succeed, you know, they're doing the right thing, and where, in places where that, that protection hasn't been given, we should encourage governments to take steps to make that protection possible because that's part of their protecting the human rights of their citizens.

Moderator: Thank you. So now going back to on a more general level: How are U.S. foreign aid decisions including PEPFAR funding impacted by a country's LGBT policies?

DAS Baer: I think it's probably more accurate to say that foreign aid effectiveness is impacted by LGBT, a country's LGBT policies. You know, we have made it clear that in designing our assistance programs, we take into account, in design to make sure that our programs will be as high impact as possible, that-- and we know that economic empowerment programs aren't as high impact if they leave out women, or if they leave out religious minorities. Similarly, if they leave out LGBT people, they can't be as high impact. LGBT people like other vulnerable groups are often economically marginalized, they're often vulnerable to particular health risks, etc, and so, when we design our programs, we try to take that into account. And one of the things that countries that are working on removing discriminatory laws will find is that our assistance can be more high impact for them, can deliver more for them, if they remove the discriminatory laws that contributed, contribute to stigma, because that kind of stigma undermines the effectiveness of our assistance.

Moderator: Thank you. Well, Dr. Baer, that's all the time we have today. Don't forget to follow us on twitter using our twitter handle, @StateDept or @HumanRightsGov, and to our participants, thank you for joining us at LiveAtState from Brussels with Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Baer, and thank you for submitting so many great questions. Goodbye, until next time.