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Is it a sin to promote gay rights abroad?

Obama draws fire for opposing persecution of gays

Steve Chapman

December 18, 2011

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Back when Ronald Reagan was president, conservatives relished skewering liberals who, in approaching international affairs, "always blame America first." A generation later, with Barack Obama in the White House, they are proving they can indict the USA with the best of them.

Earlier this month, the administration announced a new effort to "end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons" around the world. President Obama issued an executive memo outlining the campaign, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a speech on International Human Rights Day arguing that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."

This didn't get much attention, if only because the commitment is mostly rhetorical. It doesn't mean the United States will invade a country that denies equal treatment to gays, or impose economic sanctions, or cut off aid, or refuse to work together on other matters.

It just means our diplomats will occasionally raise the issue, deliver a lecture once in a while and note such abuses in the State Department's annual report on human rights in the world. Not a big deal, really.

Except, that is, to religious conservatives who regard any charitable words about gays as the death knell of Western civilization.

Rick Perry said the decision proved Obama is "out of touch with America's values." Rick Santorum said Obama was promoting "gay lifestyles." The conservative Liberty Counsel Action said Obama was exporting our "immorality to other nations that are trying to adhere to traditional principles relative to human sexuality."

As it happens, they're mistaken. Gay rights are America's values, according to America's people.

Most Americans now support legalizing same-sex marriage. A poll this year found that 73 percent favor a ban on job discrimination against gays. A similar majority supports letting gays serve openly in the military.

But the administration is not demanding that other countries legalize gay marriage, induct gay soldiers or give out awards for the most outrageous float in the gay pride parade. The chief goals are less ambitious: ending violence against people because of their sexual orientation and repealing laws that make homosexuality a crime.

It may be hard to believe, but some 76 countries outlaw gay sexual relations. At least five — Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen — make it punishable by death. In September, an Iranian human rights group reported that three men had been hanged for homosexual sodomy.

In many places, abuse is the norm. Gays across Africa "have been denied access to health care, detained, tortured and even killed," reports The Washington Post. The Gambian president promised to "cut off the head" of any homosexual. These nations, we are told, are just trying to uphold traditional morality.

It's one thing to say, as most Republicans do, that gays and lesbians should not be entitled to marry or enjoy protection against private discrimination. It's another to say they deserve to be harassed, imprisoned or executed for being gay.

But some conservatives say it's wrong for the U.S. government to protest such policies. They seem to think governments have a moral obligation to make homosexuality as miserable as possible.

This is a minority view. There was no groundswell of public anger in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against gay sodomy. Nor has the GOP pushed a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision.

Americans may disagree on gay marriage. But they really don't favor locking gays up — or harshly mistreating them — over private, consensual sex.

So what's the problem if the State Department encourages foreign governments to stop punishing gays? You might say, as Santorum does, that we should "give out humanitarian aid based on humanitarian need, not based on whether people are promoting their particular agenda." But has he ever objected to the U.S. habit of criticizing countries that persecute Christians?

You might also say that in a dangerous world, the U.S. can't afford to base its foreign policy on human rights considerations. That's true, but there is no evidence that Obama intends to sacrifice national interests in the pursuit of gay equality.

All he and Clinton are really doing is shining a spotlight on governments that treat homosexuals as criminals, subhumans or second-class citizens and urging them to stop. That stance puts them at odds with many governments over a matter of individual freedom.

You could fault Iran and Saudi Arabia and others for the disagreement. But some people would rather blame America first.

Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/ chapman

schapman@tribune.com

Twitter @SteveChapman13