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US Policy on Gays Draws Strong, Mixed, Reactions

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, December 8, 2011.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, December 8, 2011.

The Obama administration’s announcement that it will combat efforts abroad to criminalize homosexual conduct is drawing criticism from U.S. conservatives, and praise from gay and human rights activists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the new policy this week at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The United States has long advocated equal rights for gays and lesbians. But the Clinton speech, and a White House directive from President Obama this week, formally declared the fight against discrimination toward homosexuals a U.S. foreign policy priority.

In her address at the U.N. forum in Geneva, Clinton called lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people an invisible minority whose human rights are denied in many parts of the world.

She said while some suggest that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, they are in fact one and the same.

“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights," said Clinton. "It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”

Clinton, whose audience included diplomats from a number of countries where homosexuality is outlawed, said she recognized the sensitivity of the issue. But, she said being gay - like being a woman or member of a religious, tribal or ethnic minority - does not make a person less human.

President Obama’s statement said protecting LGBT rights will be a factor in U.S. foreign policy decisions. However, a White House spokeswoman said the administration is not tying U.S. foreign aid to the issue.

The initiative drew wide praise from gay and human rights groups, but instantly became an issue in U.S. presidential politics.

Two Republican candidates, Texas governor Rick Perry and former Senator Rick Santorum, said the policy amounts to promoting a gay agenda.

Conservative television pastor and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson said the policy invites the revenge of God.

“Isn’t it appalling that the United States of America would try to force the acceptance of homosexuality on other nations but at the same time we would not force them to take care of their religious minorities, and they would permit discrimination and persecution of Christians? What kind of a country have we got?" asked Robertson.

A conservative advocacy group, the Family Research Council, said no international treaty or agreement has established homosexual conduct as a human right. It said the Obama administration should step up efforts to defend widely recognized human rights rather than, in the words of a spokesman, appeasing domestic allies by trying to impose an alien ideology on other countries.

Jessica Stern is program director at the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She says critics of the policy are misinterpreting and distorting the aims of the initiative.

“This is not about so-called lifestyle promotion, but this is a response to on-going and very severe discrimination and violence," said Stern. "And Secretary Clinton promised many examples of the violence that the U.S. government is trying to address in this instance. She talks specifically about people being arrested, people being beaten, and people even being executed on the basis of their real, or perceived, sexual orientation.”

In her Geneva speech, Clinton announced a $3 million program to combat discrimination and violence against gays. The program could include relocation help for refugees fleeing violence or persecution.

Clinton aides say she is pleased with the warm audience response to her speech and that no delegates among the 47 countries represented walked out.

At least one country, Malawi, has said it will review its laws, including a ban on homosexual acts, in the wake of the U.S. message.