Yesterday the Obama administration brought LGBT rights to the top of its foreign-policy agenda, announcing it would tie the receipt of foreign aid to a country’s treatment of gay and lesbian citizens. “Gay rights are human rights,” Hillary Clinton said in a rousing speech to the United Nations in Geneva. “It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave.” As one would expect, the GOP quickly jumped on the opportunity. Rick Santorum assailed the president for "promoting gay lifestyles" around the globe, and Rick Perry quickly followed with a statement denouncing the administration's "war on traditional American values." By now the right’s sky-is-falling alarmism on gay issues has come to seem quaint.
The new policy puts some bite behind the administration's effort to promote LGBT rights worldwide. While it may not cause an immediate about-face in places where gay people are routinely hunted, persecuted, beaten, and murdered, it will at least make lawmakers think twice before enshrining anti-gay prejudice in law. The policy is likely to have its biggest effect in Africa, where an astonishing 38 countries—many which rely on the U.S. for aid—currently ban homosexual activity (in many cases, the penalty is death).
But the policy casts a wide net. It's unclear how exactly the Obama administration plans to allocate aid based on a country's LGBT-rights record, but it's a crude tool. As with economic sanctions, withholding aid to needy countries because government laws discriminate against gays and lesbians punishes the many for the crimes of the few. There are better, more targeted ways the U.S. could help improve life for gays and lesbians—including LGBT education in health initiatives and guaranteeing asylum to gays and lesbians fleeing countries where discrimination is rampant, for instance. It's just not clear that denying poor countries much-needed aid is the best way of improving attitudes about gay people and overturning laws that discriminate against them.
The policy also highlights our own hypocrisy: Only eight years after decriminalizing sodomy, the U.S. has decided it's on the global vanguard of gay rights? We still have the abhorrent Defense of Marriage Act; gays and lesbians can still be legally fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation; and 23 states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. I don't think we should wait until we have our act together before promoting gay rights abroad, but I wonder if those on the left would be as quick to cut off Alabama from receiving federal aid as they are Uganda.