Leave Hillary alone: Her UN speech was freaking great

“[W]hile Secretary Clinton wants to do the right thing and make a noble statement about people being beaten and tortured for their sexual choices, she invariably and unwittingly propagates many contradictions and posits a familiar strand of American cultural imperialism.” — Jim Downs writing in the Huffington Post about Sec. Clinton’s UN address on gay and trans rights

Far be it for me to lead the charge on defending the Obama administration’s record on gay rights.  But give me a break.

Yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shocked the world by devoting a 30+ minute speech at the United Nations in Geneva exclusively to gay and trans human rights (video and text of the speech).  I’m pretty sure it’s the first time anyone has ever given such a speech at the UN, and it’s certainly the first time an American has, let alone our Secretary of State.

A lot of us were pretty surprised, and pleased, by the speech.  But soon I heard from friends who didn’t think Hillary’s speech was that big a deal.  They said they were tired of “words” from the Obama administration, and wanted “action.”  And generally that’s a fair point: A lot of us fell hard for candidate Obama’s promise during the 2008 campaign to be a “fierce advocate” for our civil rights, and for at least the first two years of his presidency, his advocacy seemed a lot less fierce than his rhetoric.  So it’s completely understandable that people want action this time around.  I do too.

But in international diplomacy, versus domestic US politics, words often are action (and I don’t mean that in a bad way). I think back to a few months ago when Dan Choi and others were beaten by the Moscow police for simply celebrating gay pride in that city.  A number of us demanded that the State Department speak out against the violence, and finally a statement was issued by deputy spokesman Mark Toner.  I was a bit annoyed that it was only a deputy spokesman until a Washington reporter friend reminded me that Toner is the guy who does the State Department briefings on TV.  When he speaks, it carries serious weight.  We didn’t need to put economic sanctions on the Russians.  The public shaming by a senior State Department official was more than enough to get Moscow’s attention.

It’s the reason why when a summit doesn’t go so well, both countries usually issue an odd statement that sounds positive, and talks about them having a “spirited” discussion – which is diplomatic code for “they yelled at each other.”  When diplomats go public on an issue, and speak forcefully and directly, and no longer hedge their words, it’s a big deal.  What Hillary did yesterday was a big deal.  Do we want to see follow through, absolutely. But that doesn’t diminish a remarkable and historic first step.

Though you wouldn’t know it was a big deal if you read the recent op ed by Jim Downs in the Huffington Post.  Downs thinks Hillary’s words are just words, and he also accuses her, repeatedly, of using sloppy language that actually empowers the gay-haters at home and abroad.

If anything, I thought that not only was Downs’ article a bit sloppy (substantively), but it gives serious fodder to the worst of the gay and trans haters in Africa and beyond.

Let me walk you through Downs’ concerns about the Clinton speech.

1. “If Clinton truly remains committed to gay issues, is an address in Geneva the place to voice such a concern?”

Well, yeah, if her speech is about the human rights of gay and trans people in countries outside of the United States.  Where else should she be giving it?

2. Downs gets upset with Clinton for saying being gay isn’t an exclusively western thing.

Here’s what Hillary said:

“Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.” She then went on to state that “Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality.”

That was one of the worst parts of her speech? Actually, it was quite possibly the best part of her entire speech. And she’s right. And it’s an important point to make, especially in Africa where many of the homophobes believe that the whole “gay thing” was imported from the west, like a virus. Homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa, the theory goes, until the evil lascivious (white) westerners brought it with them along with their colonialism.

Yeah, right.

Well, Downs appears to agree with them. “Actually, being gay is a Western invention,” he writes.  That’s bad enough, but the paragraph that follows will be a boon to any African homophobe who wants to justify the claim that local gays (and trans) Africans aren’t “real” Africans fighting for “actual” civil and human rights.  You can read Downs’ entire paragraph for yourself. He explains how the entire notion of “homosexuality” and a gay “identity” was born in the west a century ago. Yeah, that’s helpful. What he means, of course, is that the word “homosexual” didn’t exist until about a hundred years ago, and that people who had a same-sex sexual orientation didn’t hang out together on Grindr and go to gay bars and gay film festivals until recently.

First, duh. Second, so?

No, I am going to quote his entire paragraph. You need to read it for yourself to fully appreciate the damage being done here.

Actually, being gay is a Western invention. Homosexuality has a long history that begins in the West. Cultures throughout the world may have had people who have over time engaged in same-sex sex but that’s different from the historical categorization of “being gay.” People only started “being gay” about a century ago. Prior to that, men may have had sex with men, and women may have had sex with women, but that was not being gay–that was sex and sometimes love. Gay is an identity that came into fashion at the turn of the twentieth century in the West. Today, there is not a single definition for “being gay” even in the United States, let alone throughout the world. In the United States, what it means to be gay in New York City is very different from what it means to be gay in Pierre, South Dakota. Same-sex sex is different from “being gay.” Take, for example, in the United States the notion of being on the “down low,” refers to men who live “heterosexual lives,” but also have sex with men. They don’t call themselves “gay,” neither do the thousands of men who visit porn and internet hookup sites, who are looking for sex with “straight jocks.”

This is all to say that while Clinton wants to do the right thing and make a noble statement about people being beaten and tortured for their sexual choices, she invariably and unwittingly propagates many contradictions and posits a familiar strand of American cultural imperialism.

This isn’t a college queer studies course. Hillary was absolutely correct. Gay people have existed in the historical record since possibly as early as 9000 BC. Why in a million years would anyone want to say otherwise, especially knowing that this notion of “being gay is a Western invention” is exactly the kind of argument African legislators and dictators are using to justify the incarceration, torture and murder of their own gay and trans people?

There is nothing wrong with what Secretary Clinton told the UN. She’s right. Gay people are everywhere. And we’ve been everywhere throughout recorded history. It doesn’t matter if America’s notion of being “gay” is different from Native Americans which is different from Fijians which is different from Ancient Greeks, which is different from what people thought about us in the 1700s.  (Hell, we can’t even agree on what to call our own community in the US nowadays.)  It doesn’t matter.  If you have a same-sex sexual orientation you’re “gay” – it’s simply the word we use in America today, get over it – and in far too many parts of the world, if anyone finds out you’re “gay,” you’re screwed.  They don’t really haggle over the linguistics of it all.

And I’m not even going to touch the “American cultural imperialism” crap. She was staking out the most pro-gay position ever promoted by an American administration in the most public way ever. And she was trying to help some poor gay kids in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Nigeria not get hanged, or worse, for being gay. Under Downs’ definition, all human rights must be cultural imperialism, since per se one country is telling another how to live. And as I recall, that in fact is the definition the Soviets and the Communist Chinese prefer(red), for obvious reasons.

Downs goes on to criticize the Obama administration for lecturing the world when it doesn’t entirely have its own pro-gay house in order. And it’s a fair point. And I’ve made it myself on many an issue. And in fact, the kind of anti-gay legislation being talked about in Africa today is the kind of thing the Republicans and their religious right cronies have either proposed previously, or would love to propose if they could get away with it – so America isn’t lily white here. But I’m just not convinced that President Obama refusing to come clean on gay marriage (and we all know he’s fine with it, or he wouldn’t have filled out that two questionnaires in 1996 say he was) means that the US shouldn’t use its considerable power to try to quite literally save the lives of gay and trans human beings across the globe.  How exactly is that a bad thing?

3. Downs concludes by blaming Hillary for Rick Perry’s absurd condemnation of the UN speech

Perry claimed, among other things, that the US was trying to foist the “gay lifestyle” on the world, and that Obama was seeking “special rights” for gays internationally. (Yes, the special right not to have your head chopped off in Saudi Arabia.) Downs somehow argues that Hillary’s  supposedly “incorrect” comments about gays living everywhere gave Rick Perry license to attack us.

Clinton’s speech attempted to raise awareness for gay people abroad, but it summarily fueled a fire on gay people at home.

Oh just go away.

Any time anyone does anything pro-gay you’d better believe the religious right is going to strike back. But that’s hardly a justification for not doing anything at all.  They’re going to hate us, and beat on us, regardless of whether we fight for our rights.  So we might as well.

Look, my record on holding the Obama administration accountable on gay civil rights is well established. And I’m hardly someone with a solid record of genuflecting at the altar of Hillary (we quite vocally came out swinging for Obama during the primaries (though post-election I’ve liked Hillary a lot)). But to take what was a historic move by the United States on behalf of gay and trans people worldwide, and then twist it into something that both indicts Secretary Clinton and empowers the worst of the haters in Africa and beyond, is an abomination.

I want marriage too. And it’s far past time the President issued an executive order on ENDA with regards to federal contractors. But sometimes the guy actually does do good stuff. And this was one of those times.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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