Category Archives: State Department

Just one little word.

Trmp medal not copyrighted

Just one little word changes everything.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson observed, in a speech to his staff on May 3rd, that: “I think the real challenge many of us have as we think about constructing our policies and carrying out our policies is: How do we represent our values? And in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over. We do.”

The word I am hung up about, of course, isn’t Tillerson’s missing adjective before “treatment”, although that does invite speculation. No, it is the possessive “our”. When it comes to human rights – this critically important framework of global peace and hope for the future – the “our” has no national boundaries. There is no “America First” in that “our”. Yet that is not what Secretary Tillerson is saying.

When did human rights, and the foundation of human dignity that such rights rest upon, lose the quality of being universal? Does Secretary Tillerson even notice its absence?

To be fair, Secretary Tillerson did reassure the Foreign Service Officers and other staff gathered before him that the State Department and USAID would continue to advocate for human dignity and freedom, yet he failed to state the reason why. Why ought they to do such advocacy? There is only one reason – because it is the right thing to do. We ought to do it – as a moral imperative – in a political world that has left practically no space open for moral deliberations based on universal ethical principles. In the vacuum left by the failure to deliberate the universal “ought” of foreign (and national) affairs, a very parochial “our” has taken over and left us all in fractured, polarized, hostile, and deeply contested spaces.

Every day, on social media and in political diatribes, in our social circles and even in our faith communities, we are frequently subjected to moralizing (i.e. “my way or the highway”) by the talking heads and tweeting/texting fingers of the extremes of the political and social spectrum. They tell us that their brand – and only their brand – of conservatism, or religion, or liberalism, militarism, progressivism, libertarianism, American socialism, or extreme “America First” jingoistic nationalism, is who we are and what we ought to be about.

Screw everyone else.

That “everyone else” includes some very decent, very vulnerable, very “human” people, but under the prevailing narrative we are supposed to forget about the likes of Amna and Meeno in Saudi Arabia. But more on them later. Continue reading Just one little word.

Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

cliff-edge-2

It’s existential.

There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.

Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best  harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.

Take it from me: it’s existential.

Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.

Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us. Continue reading Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

Wrapped in the flag

 

shredded-flag

Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

Pride Month – a time for international leadership

 

Xulhaz Mannan

June is Pride Month, and it is now associated with marches and festivals that celebrate the progress made to date around the world in achieving a growing aspiration – to respect the universal dignity of all human beings – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I will be proud to march with members of my Quaker community in Washington’s own Pride Parade this Saturday. Yet amid the celebrations, there are also moments when we must take stock of the grievous sacrifices that have characterized this dignity journey so far.

Today was a stocktaking day for me, as I attended the special memorial service for Xulhaz Mannan that was held at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s headquarters in Washington. Xulhaz was a Foreign Service National – a local employee of USAID – who worked at the USAID Mission in his home country of Bangladesh. On April 25th of this year, Xulhaz and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were both hacked to death in his apartment by six members of an extremist group.

Xulhaz knew the risks of being openly gay in Bangladesh, but he was a man with a strong moral sense of mission. Besides his important work on democracy, human rights, and good governance programming for USAID in Bangladesh, Xulhaz also served as the editor of Roopbaan, that country’s first and only LGBTI magazine. Xulhaz was a committed LGBTI development activist, and he paid the price for his commitment in a country where diversity is culturally abhorred by many. I did not know Xulhaz personally, but having worked in Bangladesh, the reality of his tragic loss was particularly gripping.

Bangladeshi popular abhorrence notwithstanding, diversity happens.

Xulhaz’s bravery in owning his homosexuality was only part of a picture of a man who was a recognized champion on behalf of Bangladesh’s gay and transgender people. The speeches made at the USAID memorial service were eloquent, sincere, and moving in their praise of his generosity of spirit, his principled commitment to human rights, his remarkable sense of humor amid deeply challenging times in his country, and his many cherished friendships. For me, there were two particularly poignant moments in this memorial service. One was  when Xulhaz’s brother, Minhaz Mannan Emon, made a profoundly personal tribute to his lost brother. The second was when the USAID Administrator, Gayle Smith, fought back her tears to paint a vibrant picture of a man who was beloved and respected – and very, very human.

Bangladesh and many other countries afflicted by perverse intolerance for the inescapable (and wonderful) reality of human diversity constitute some of the most challenging battle lines in the struggle for human dignity. That awareness filled my heart as I went directly from the memorial service to a (previously arranged) USAID Pride Month event upstairs in the same building, where I joined former Congressman Barney Frank; the International Program Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA, Andrew Park; and USAID’s Senior Human Rights, LGBTI, and Social Inclusion Advisor Ajit Joshi as the fourth speaker to USAID staff gathered in the Nelson Mandela Room. Our topic: how international development efforts might best address the plight of LGBTI persons around the world – and what USAID’s optimal role should be in this context. Continue reading Pride Month – a time for international leadership

India won’t talk to us

Taj Mahal

When the world’s two largest democracies won’t speak with each other, urgent questions ought to be asked. In particular, when the issues proposed for discussion included human trafficking and the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, the refusal to engage is both inexplicable and inexcusable.

The United States has certainly placed a great emphasis on improving U.S. – India relations. While visiting India, President Obama even went so far as to frame the relations between the U.S. and India as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”. And of course, there’s a very large, very active, and very successful Indian-American community, arguably the most remarkable diaspora population in the world today. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also visited the United States in September of both 2014 and 2015, and was warmly received on both occasions. It is therefore nothing short of bizarre that the visas of two very senior American diplomats who had arranged important visits to India have “run into problems”, and the visits have been scrapped for now.

It isn’t too far-reaching to presume that the failure to grant these visas has everything to do with the portfolios of these two diplomats, and not the diplomats themselves. Ambassador-at-Large Susan Coppedge heads up the State Department’s global engagement against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. She comes to this important role from a career distinguished by her expertise as a successful prosecutor of human trafficking cases, and as a proficient trainer regarding the nature of human trafficking to law enforcement agencies in many countries. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry, also truly earned his rank from a similarly distinguished and exemplary record of expertise. As the first American diplomat to ever hold this position, his diplomatic career has involved postings in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Uganda (twice), and South Africa. Randy Berry also joins only six other openly gay American diplomats holding an ambassadorial rank.

In short, these two people are among America’s very best, brightest, most distinguished, and most trusted. They’re certainly worth engaging with. The denial of visas to both is simply quite astounding.

The United States wasn’t going to India to scold or to preach. This country has many egregious problems of our own when it comes to a failure to respect the human rights and dignity of vulnerable groups, including people who are trafficked and all within the LGBTI communities. While we cannot know with precision how many people are trafficked to and in the United States, the estimates range from between 14,500 to 17,500 people annually, mostly women and children. Despite these disturbingly large numbers, our dysfunctional Congress has yet to pass the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination (FORTE) Act, first introduced in 2013. And, as evidenced by the recent vote in Houston turning down an initiative to protect LGBTI people and others against discrimination, and in the irresponsible and ignorant branding by Senator Ted Cruz of the alleged Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood center attacker as a “transgendered [sic] leftist activist”, hate speech and the self-righteous, extensive persecution of LGBTI persons in America are all too vibrant here. Continue reading India won’t talk to us

Leaving a deeper Transgender and Intersex Legacy: The Last 22 Months

Sec. Of State John Kerry Meets With LGBT Special Envoy  Randy Berry At The State Dept.

Newly appointed Special LGBT Envoy Randy Berry

 

An important handshake, but where has the momentum gone?

When I was appointed as one of the first three transgender political appointees in American history the White House LGBT Liaison at that time, Brian Bond, would invite all three of us in each month to meet with him. He’d attentively listen to what we had to say, take copious notes, and then follow up with us the next month on White House actions taken. This level of concern and action-oriented responsiveness on transgender issues diminished after he left the White House, and in that relative vacuum I can’t help but wonder now where’s the leadership in response to the worsening international plight of transgender and intersex persons.

There are just over 22 months left in the Obama Administration, and I’m hardly the only one taking stock. There’s much to be pleased about; internationally this Administration has already moved the marker farther than ever before in the context of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, if only tentatively addressing intersex persons. The six priority areas described in President Obama’s December 6, 2011 Presidential Memorandum on International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of LGBT Persons provided a detailed and very specific framework to harness the energies of all federal agencies involved in international affairs. That Memorandum’s focus was almost entirely on sexual orientation however, making only passing reference to gender identity. Since that time the domestic transgender population has received White House attention, as in the most recent State of the Union speech, but internationally the record isn’t nearly as strong. Continue reading Leaving a deeper Transgender and Intersex Legacy: The Last 22 Months