Category Archives: State Department

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Given that my high school and college years were spent in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I’ve seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

Saturday January 20th was auspicious – Year #2 for the Women’s March in Washington and around the world. So I probably should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers up there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the heart of my city. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered chose to wander out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold brief embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it offered an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. As I mused on their icy exploits, speaker after speaker exhorted us to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. I knew they were preaching to the choir – we were there because we’re the committed ones. Still, even our staunch commitment had limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after the speeches had droned on for well over an hour past the official march start time. So technically I did not march yesterday, but the afternoon was well spent and reinforcing; at this stage I will take whatever solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Our democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will again feel that they’re pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game. Continue reading On thin ice


It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

America is going in one direction – the wrong one.

Are Americans witnessing the triumph of ignorance, selfishness, greed, and incompetence?  If so, we ought not to be surprised. Outside of religious values tied to particular beliefs, dogmas and ideologies, we just don’t talk about morals. OK – sometimes we do love to ascribe some negative values (vices, really) to certain others: greediness, vanity, laziness, boastfulness. But when we attempt to describe our moral foundations as a nation, or even try to unpack what “American values” mean, we get tongue-tied. We often seem to have lost the vocabulary of secular morals, and we stumble forward without recognizing moral dilemmas in our path. Our inability to articulate a moral quandary might go some way in explaining the flailing soul-searching now happening about Charlottesville.

Has the notion of secular, universal moral values lost its appeal? Moral principles certainly have become obscured by politicized law-making, and “ethics” has come to mean only dry, tedious rules about disclosure and behavior. The voices of secular morality and ethical principles are largely notable by their absence.  Gone are the days when people of the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt labored hard to help craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now we have a Secretary of State in Rex Tillerson who lacks a moral vocabulary. He has consigned freedom, dignity, and human rights to irrelevancy, at least whenever these principles fail to align with what “the leadership” has identified as our economic and security interests. In the era of America First, our nation is self-maximizing, which arguably nations ought to be. But should there not be some moral constraints that we consider?

And yes, there is the commander-in-chief, the 45th President of the United States of America. Donald Trump does a credible job of being the incarnation of maximizing self-interest and eschewing moral determinations, even as he holds the office in which our many institutions of government were meant to be guided by. That guidance was always intended to be an executive function of looking out for the well-being of all Americans, and standing tall for universal moral principles even beyond our borders. But Trump is about winning, about wealth, about power, about Trump.

Trump is ignorant. But the ignorance I’m perplexed by isn’t about lack of education, or a deficient intellect, or even individualism on its own merits, but is more in the sense of ignorance as described by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master:

When we talk of ignorance, it has nothing to do with stupidity. In a way, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is an intelligence that works exclusively in one direction. That is, we react exclusively to our own projections instead of simply seeing what is there.

Given such ignorance at the top, what direction are we going in? While it is now popular (and in many contexts warranted) to deprecate Trump, you may think I’m being too harsh if I  ascribe ignorance to all those who adhere to modern economic dogma. The goal is “every man for himself” – and it is usually assumed to be the men and not the women who are out there heroically forging their respective individual “did-it-my-way” destinies, unconstrained by concerns about others. Individualism has become our unwritten national creed, and the foundation of our economy.

Arguably Trump is more a symptom or byproduct of the trend of unapologetic individualism, and not a leader of a new agenda. He’s already demonstrated – time and again – his lack of empathy, competence, judgment, or the temperament of a real leader. Trump is more about rule than leadership; he serves himself and his family. His “projections” are about winning, not about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. As president he’s turned his back on decades of global American leadership grounded in a moral agenda that once spoke to most American’s sense of common identity, common destiny, common decency, common good. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, America has personified and projected a new identity – America First. That doctrine is the natural outcome of an amoral, every-man-for-himself world view.

It’s the wrong direction. Continue reading America is going in one direction – the wrong one.

Just one little word.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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


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



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