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For decades, the United States has championed human rights abroad as part of its foreign policy. Yet Washington’s attempts to balance promoting human rights with realpolitik has often been messy and inconsistent, especially when dealing with rights-violating regimes that remain important geostrategic actors. During her famous 1995 “Human Rights are Women's Rights” speech, First Lady Hillary Clinton riled a key economic partner, China, when she harshly criticized its treatment of women. By contrast, in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, for raising the issue of torture with Chilean officials. Kissinger suggested that Popper “cut out the political science lectures.”
Yet it remains an open question to this day as to how aggressively the State Department should promote democratic principles, an act that often infuriates foreign countries or leads to a backlash. Today, the inclusion of LGBT equality in Washington’s worldwide human rights-promotion package is highlighting precisely this dilemma.
Despite its checkered past on gay rights—the State Department expelled gay employees in the 1950s—the United States under President Barack Obama has dramatically changed its policy. In February 2015, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first U.S. special envoy for LGBT rights. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of “defending and promoting” the rights of LGBT individuals to American diplomacy. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji marched in the Stockholm Pride Parade, and in India, the U.S. Embassy lit up its facade in rainbow colors after the June shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Yet in much of the Arab Middle East, where populations overwhelmingly oppose homosexuality (including 95 percent of Egyptians and 97 percent of Jordanians), LGBT-rights promotion is more complicated. There, widespread hostility to gay rights puts the United States in a difficult position. One might argue that just as Washington has aggressively advocated for women’s rights and the welfare of religious minorities across the globe, so too should it consistently and publicly back gay rights, even if that means rebuffing foreign governments. Such a forceful approach, however, contradicts the wishes of many LGBT people actually living in the Arab Middle East.
In 2015, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Alice Wells, attended a small event in Amman organized by members of the local LGBT community. Many Jordanians were outraged, and after her public appearance a number of LGBT individuals were violently harassed, according to a Jordanian blogger who went by the pseudonym Ahmad. One popular local news program devoted an astonishing 70 minutes to bashing Wells, comparing her actions to visiting an Islamic State gathering on the grounds that both would be a violation of Jordan’s sovereignty and local laws. Given the tremendous popular backlash, an Amman-based foreign diplomat I interviewed bluntly called the U.S. Ambassador’s visit a “dumb move.”
Ahmad said that Wells’ visit undermined initiatives, such as support groups, that the local LGBT community had been promoting. He explained that, given longstanding stereotypes of homosexuality in Arab culture, the public backing of a U.S. ambassador suggested to many Jordanians that gay rights are part of a “foreign agenda.” Ahmad explained that the ambassador stigmatized the local LGBT cause by associating it with the West and spoiled its chance of being regarded as an authentic Jordanian phenomenon.
Given longstanding stereotypes of homosexuality in Arab culture, the public backing of a U.S. ambassador suggested to many Jordanians that gay rights are part of a “foreign agenda.”
Ahmad compared the dynamics between the conservative elements of his society and the LGBT community to a high school brawl—just as a student engaged in a fistfight wouldn’t want someone else to jump in on his or her behalf, neither does a local activist want the United States to interfere with a campaign. Others echoed this sentiment. When I asked Aisha, another local activist, whether she supports American pro-gay advocacy in Amman, she cautioned, “We don’t continually need people to save us.” Aisha went on to accuse the United States of hypocrisy for advocating for LGBT rights in the Middle East when black transgender women are repeatedly killed in American cities. When, after the controversy over Alice Wells, five LGBT Jordanians were asked whether they favored additional demonstrations of U.S. support, they all answered with a resounding “No.” Mousa, a writer for the pro-gay My.Kali magazine, asked rhetorically: “Is it OK to promote LGBT rights by putting the LGBT community in that country in danger?”
In April, U.S. LGBT policy was again put to the test when the Jordanian government banned the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila—a group known for its provocative lyrics and gay lead singer—from performing in Amman. (The governor of Amman, Khalid Abu Zeid, justified the decision on the grounds that that the group’s songs contradicted Muslim religious beliefs.) This time, however, the U.S. embassy did nothing to publicly condemn Jordan’s decision—perhaps Wells learned her lesson about the hazards of open U.S. intervention. Although a spokesman for the U.S. embassy declined to comment on the matter, both activists and diplomats in Amman believe that the United States has deliberately avoided gay-rights advocacy in the past year.
Receiving Western funding is also seen as unacceptable in Jordan. The pro-LGBT magazine My.Kali—previously published in English—triggered an outcry in May when its content appeared in Arabic for the first time, leading to false allegations that it had received outside financial support. To maintain its credibility, the publication had to clarify on Facebook that it was not “sponsored by or supported by any foreign governments.”
For the LGBT community in Jordan, any association with foreigners is tricky. Yet the situation is especially difficult when it comes to the United States. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, points to the high levels of anti-Americanism in many Arab countries and the widespread perception in the region that the United States is an imperialistic power, especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hamid explains that for people “as misunderstood” as the Arab LGBT community, association with the U.S. government can be problematic.
For U.S. diplomats with limited resources, moreover, there are a number of other grave human rights challenges in Jordan that they could address, including the 85,000 Syrian refugees trapped on Jordan’s border and the increasing use of the death penalty. And unlike in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, where gays can be put to death for intercourse, homosexuality has been decriminalized in Jordan. Therefore, as one foreign diplomat explained, embassies should focus on issues that can concretely benefit from Western support. Publicly advocating for gay rights in Jordan “won’t change anything,” at least not for the better.
When it comes to geopolitics, the United States has critical strategic interests in Amman and it should be wary of antagonizing its ally. Jordan has played an important role throughout the war against the Islamic State, such as heavily bombarding ISIS targets inside Syria. Amman also hosts, unofficially, thousands of U.S. military personnel, according to a report from Vice. The Jordanian government is less likely to cooperate with Washington if it feels that the latter’s diplomats are insulting and undermining it by publicly raising the issue of LGBT rights.
If the United States truly feels it must take part in LGBT activism in Jordan or other Arab countries that have high levels of homophobia, community members have suggested discrete steps that U.S. diplomats can take. One activist, Nadine, recommended offering emergency relocation and job training for LGBT individuals who may be physically at risk. Neela Ghosal, a senior gay-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, emphasized that private discussions with foreign governments through, for instance, health and justice ministries, can be a productive way for Washington to reiterate its concerns on the issue.
Finally, Ghosal urged the United States to consult with local LGBT organizations before taking any action, to ensure that whatever it intends to do actually helps civil society. Most importantly, Washington should keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight. (In what may be a sign of progress, both U.S. LGBT Special Envoy Randy Berry and Ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells repeatedly declined to be interviewed about the United States’ support for LGBT rights in the Arab world.)
Promoting LGBT rights is a cornerstone of the State Department’s human rights agenda. But, in Jordan at least, this promotion has had a damaging effect—delegitimizing the local LGBT community and putting it at even greater risk. Perhaps, when it comes to LGBT rights, Washington should ensure first of all that its policies do no harm.
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