Straight Talk With Michael Guest

AB: What if a state department official steps into a situation – they approach a government and say, “We know you have laws against homosexuality. This needs to change.” And then the leaders say, “It’s not a part of our culture. It’s a Western thing.” How can diplomacy bridge such a stark ideological divide on something that’s as contentious as sexuality?

MG: There are international norms that have been negotiated over time in places like the United Nations that pertain to LGBT rights. I guess my response to any government that said, “That’s your culture” would to remind them of conventions that in all likelihood they have signed. Also, I would make clear that no matter what you think about homosexuality, there’s still an obligation to ensure that they are protected against being killed and they shouldn’t be abused because they’re homosexual. There are norms that should be followed irrespective of one country’s background: norms that are international. And that’s what human rights are all about.

AB: Back to America, with regard to your resignation – what’s your view of American democracy? Obviously democracy is one man, one vote, but take that a little further and think of liberal democracy, all men are created equal. Has liberal democracy really been a success in the United States?

MG: Well, let me look at it in a slightly different way. I’ve spent 26 years of my life – well, more than that – studying foreign policy and then 26 years being an active diplomat posted to a number of countries. I’ve seen how democracy is not perfect in any country, just like individuals are not perfect. Everybody has their own beauty spots and flaws, their strengths and weaknesses. And the same is true about democracies. I think America has a more vibrant democracy than so many countries that I have seen, but it’s not perfect. What I love about American democracy – and why I’m involved in this project – is that when Americans see something unjust, they get involved. Not everybody, but you have the capacity to get involved. There are a lot of organizations in civil society that exist to call attention to issues.

I love the fact that in this country that you can debate and push for change and that isn’t the case in a lot of countries around the world. Yes, we have flaws in our system. In fact, I was commenting to someone that there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the State Department puts out this report on human rights violations overseas every year, but no one really does an assessment of our own democracy and our own human rights failings.

AB: Definitely.

MG:There’s also irony in the fact that while the State Department’s putting out these reports, it is practicing discriminatory policies in its work place against LGBT employees, which is why I left. But, having left and having then found an organization and raise my voice on Capitol Hill – the issue has now been raised to the Secretary of State by a member of Congress and the Secretary has now responded with one small change in favor of partners of gay and lesbian foreign service employees: to allow the partners to attend the security seminar, but that’s a baby step. It does, however, show that you can have an impact by getting involved.

I think we’ve lost a lot of opportunities over the past seven years to use America’s influence for positive good in areas like this: human rights abuse issues. We want to see that attention to principle on the basis of what this country has always stood for. It’s important that the government start standing on principle.