Straight Talk With Michael Guest

Michael Guest stepped into the spotlight again this week. The former Romanian ambassador, who resigned last year to protest the State Department’s gay inequality, held a press conference to highlight the Department’s documentation of anti-gay human rights abuses.

Despite the Department’s look at these abuses, that report, says Guest and his friends at the LGBT Foreign Policy Project, does nothing to address the stark, often violent reality of gay living abroad.

Our editor sat down with Guest yesterday to discuss the report, as well as the State Department’s queer inaction, how to approach anti-gay nations and why even a flawed democracy matters.

Check it out, after the jump.

Andrew Belonsky: So, let’s start this week’s press conference on the treatment of gay people abroad.

Michael Guest: Yes, well we talked about how the State Department’s report on LGBT rights has become more complete over time – over the past ten or twelve years.

AB: And what’s the significance of that – that the report has become more comprehensive?

MG: Well, it’s important to have an accurate understanding of what the picture of discrimination is against LGBT citizens overseas. It’s the starting point for action against legal discrimination, as well as a range of abuses that are being carried out. We need a clear picture of what’s happening in these countries in order to come up with an action plan.

AB: Obviously the State Department is well aware of abuses that are happening around the world, but do you think the State Department is really working to nullify abuses?

MG: First of all, without a human rights report, it’s not clear to me that the State Department or we as citizens would even know of the human rights abuses happening overseas. It was only in 1995 that LGBT issues were even put into the report. But, no, I don’t believe that the State Department is doing enough. More needs to be done. That starts with having a clear or more precise record – in other words, if you look at the report, some countries don’t mention LGBT issues at all. There needs to be greater clarity than what there is now and we’ll be taking that case to the State Department. Beyond the clarity, we want a record to show what the embassies are doing to counter the discrimination. We want a clear record of embassies expressing concern about reports of abuses – physical abuses against LGBT citizens. There’s a whole range of actions that need to take place and it’s not clear from the reports whether they are taking place.

AB: What’s the motivation for the State Department’s inaction? Or, rather, why are they not motivated to act?

MG: Well, the report is an onerous thing to compile, I know that, and very often embassies have twenty things they have to do in that day, so it’s easy for attention to the issue to slide. I think over time, since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, there has been a slide in our focus on human rights. Do I think it’s deliberate? No, not always. It may depend on the individuals, but I think in general there are just other priorities that have crept in and my organization believes this issue should be one of our highest priorities in keeping with what America stands for: freedom, equality, diversity and respect.

AB: What steps would you suggest – obviously the United States’ politics and economic system are intrinsically linked to anti-gay nations. Saudi Arabia comes to mind. Do you think that the State Department is worried about ruffling its allies’ feathers?

MG: I think the State Department doesn’t think about the issue actively: human rights abuses and particularly human rights abuses against the LGBT community. In the day-to-day world that embassies operate in – if you’re sitting in country that’s an ally in the war on terror, or you’re sitting in a country where we have developmental needs – certain projects take priority. That’s why we felt compelled to hold a press conference. These kinds of abuses are, in our view, quite serious. They need to be taken seriously by our government, which has pledged to represent the values and principles of this country. We understand that these issues don’t get treated in a void – every bilateral relationship is complex and involve many different factors, but you have to stand on principle. You have to have a consistent manner of raising concerns about the violation of individuals in countries, even countries that are our friends. You’ve got be able to speak clearly and consistently with them – and that’s really what friends should do with each other.