Last week President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum directing “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.” On the same day, Secretary of State Clinton gave a speech on human rights emphasizing that “[l]ike being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human.”
U.S. politics being what they are, the suggestion that gay people have rights sparked immediate backlash. From America’s favorite extended practical joke, Rick Perry:
“Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America’s interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers’ money.”
This is heartbreaking. Not just because it confirms that Rick Perry is real, or at best a really vivid mass hallucination, but because if there’s anything “special” about gay rights, it’s that they are far more limited than the class of rights straight people enjoy. In fact, the specific gay rights mentioned by the memorandum are (1) not to have their sexual orientation criminalized, and (2) asylum.
Given that the right of asylum only kicks in when an individual is a victim of past persecution (which usually means torture) or has a well-founded fear of future persecution (generally, torture or murder), it should be clear that the rights the Obama administration is attempting to guarantee are not your fancier sorts of rights. (Unless I missed the fine print on the memo reading “A swimming pool for every gay!”) Not being subject to criminal penalty or violence due to one of your innate and inalterable characteristics is about as basic as human rights get.
Bonus round: The Memorandum instructs U.S. government agencies to target foreign aid towards efforts to improve gay rights. Notably, it does not suggest that the U.S. will make aid to foreign governments conditional on their treatment of LGBT persons. I point this out because moves by European governments to cut aid to countries that criminalize homosexuality have met with criticism from gay rights activists in Africa on the grounds that such policies impede their work and risk triggering backlash against the LGBT community.