White House national security adviser Susan E. Rice took time away from a variety of global security emergencies Tuesday to promote international gay rights, calling it "among the most challenging human rights issues we face."
The president's top national security aide told about 200 gay-rights activists that the Obama administration is fostering gay rights in the U.S. to serve as an example for the rest of the world. She said President Obama has ordered a diplomatic and financial effort to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women around the world.
"Protecting and upholding human rights, especially for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters, is work to which we are all called," Ms. Rice said. "America's support for LGBT rights is not just a national cause but it's also a global enterprise."
The Obama administration has made gay rights a centerpiece of its foreign policy. The U.S. imposed visa bans last week on Ugandan officials for corruption and for violating the rights of gay people, and canceled a military exercise due to the country's anti-gay sex law.
Uganda approved a law in February allowing possible life sentences for those convicted of engaging in gay sex.
Mr. Obama has carried the human rights message abroad, for example, urging leaders in Senegal last year to extend equal rights to gays and lesbians. Senegal's president rejected Mr. Obama's message, saying his country "still isn't ready" to decriminalize homosexuality.
Seven countries have laws imposing death sentences for gay sex, and Brunei, a sovereign Islamic state in Southeast Asia, could become the eighth.
When Ms. Rice took the stage Tuesday, she received a hug from Norman L. Eisen, U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, and an enthusiastic ovation from activists in the audience. Referring to her busy portfolio that includes pressing national security problems in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, Ms. Rice joked, "I should come back here every day, because I'm not getting that kind of love anywhere else."
She also has been the administration's lightning rod on Benghazi ever since she put forward the administration's now-discredited "talking points" in 2012 blaming the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate on rioting over an anti-Islam video. Four Americans, including ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in the assault.
Ms. Rice said the U.S. has a duty to lead the world on stopping discrimination against gays, because nearly 80 nations have laws encouraging bias against LGBT citizens. She cited Nigeria, Uganda, Russia and Brunei as countries with especially poor human rights records for gays.
"Unfortunately, in too many places, being gay or transgender is enough to make someone the target of slurs, torments, and violence," she said.
"Abuse is often encouraged by custom and by local authorities who look the other way, or worse. But cultural differences do not excuse human rights violations."
The White House allowed media coverage of Ms. Rice's speech, but officials kept the rest of the forum on global LGBT human rights out of public view. Reporters were not allowed to cover other speakers or panel discussions, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Participants included advocates representing LGBT rights groups from 10 countries, and more than 100 representatives of American religious groups, businesses and philanthropies, as well as organizations advocating for people with HIV.
One of the groups participating in the forum, the American Jewish World Service, urged Mr. Obama to appoint a special envoy for global LGBT rights in the State Department.
"Given the grave challenges faced by LGBT people in 77 countries where homosexuality is illegal and the increased anti-LGBT actions of governments worldwide, we call on President Obama to build on his unparalleled and historic support of LGBT rights," said Robert Bank, the group's executive vice president,
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during a gay pride event last week that one of his goals is to ensure that lesbian, bisexual and transgender ambassadors represent the U.S. abroad.
Speaking at a GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies) Pride event at the State Department, Mr. Kerry said that, if confirmed as an envoy to Vietnam, Ted Osius would be the sixth openly gay U.S. ambassador currently in service.
"[Mr. Osius] will be the first openly LGBT officer nominated to serve as an ambassador in Asia," Mr. Kerry said. "I'm working hard to ensure that by the end of my tenure, we will have lesbian, bisexual and transgender ambassadors in our ranks as well."
When Uganda signed its anti-gay law bill in February, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni blasted the U.S. for saying the law would complicate its relationship with the country.
"We Africans never seek to impose our view on others," Mr. Museveni said. "If only they could let us alone. We have been disappointed for a long time by the conduct of the West. There is now an attempt at social imperialism."
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