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MSMGF: New U.S. foreign policy on LGBT human rights to help in AIDS fight globally

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) applauds a series of announcements made by the United States government this week codifying the protection and promotion of the human rights of LGBT people worldwide as official U.S. foreign policy.

Speaking at the United Nations in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the U.S. vision for achieving LGBT equality around the world, launching a $3 million Global Equality Fund to support LGBT advocacy by civil society, describing a new State Department Task Force on LGBT rights, and announcing forthcoming toolkits on LGBT rights for all U.S. embassies abroad. In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama issued a memorandum directing all U.S. agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT people.

The MSMGF applauds the smart power afforded by providing funds to support civil society advocacy efforts as a mechanism to advance LGBT human rights. Whereas other well-intentioned efforts by bilateral donors have utilized threats to cut foreign aid to countries that violate LGBT human rights, this clumsy approach has ultimately backfired -- having the effect of cutting support to people that need it most and provoking backlash from wider communities. Investing in civil society advocacy capacity is a more sophisticated approach that recognizes the agency and independence of local advocates holding their own national governments accountable to international human rights norms.

These new directions have profoundly positive implications for addressing concentrated HIV epidemics occurring among men who have sex with men (MSM) in all world regions. As outlined in a collection of video testimonials and written reports launched by the MSMGF on World AIDS Day, human rights violations and criminal laws foster hostile environments that drive MSM underground, undermining access to HIV and health services. A foreign policy mandate to fulfill LGBT human rights greatly reinforces both (a) the new U.S. global health policy priority of achieving an “HIV Free Generation,” announced just weeks ago by Secretary Clinton, and (b) a new U.S. target to support HIV treatment for 6 million people worldwide, declared by President Obama on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1).

“An HIV-Free Generation is only possible if we mobilize a truly inclusive response” said Dr. George Ayala, MSMGF executive officer. “The bold leadership of the U.S. government to stand up unequivocally in support of LGBT human rights is a catalyst for turning the tide of the HIV epidemic among MSM. This foreign policy aligns with HIV epidemiology, with public health research, with human rights, and is absolutely on the right side of history.”

President Obama’s memorandum, directed at several U.S. agencies including the State Department and USAID, calls for a number of different actions to promote LGBT rights:

1. Combating Criminalization of LGBT Status or Conduct Abroad

2. Protecting Vulnerable LGBT Refugees and Asylum Seekers

3. Foreign Assistance to Protect Human Rights and Advance Nondiscrimination

4. Swift and Meaningful U.S. Responses to Human Rights Abuses of LGBT Persons Abroad

5. Engaging International Organizations in the Fight Against LGBT Discrimination

6. Reporting on Progress

Secretary Clinton’s speech touched on multiple issues related to the lives of LGBT people, dispelling harmful myths, addressing issues of culture and religion, and highlighting remarks by former President Mogae of Botswana that as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS. Reiterating her remarks from June 2011, Secretary Clinton again affirmed that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

“The lack of human rights protection for LGBT people is not a stand-alone problem – it exacerbates one of the worst health and development problems of our time,” said Dr. Mohan Sundararaj, MSMGF policy associate. “MSM shoulder a disproportionate burden of HIV disease around the world, including right here in the United States, and HIV prevalence rates are typically worse among transgender women. Official foreign policy to uphold LGBT rights is an important step toward ending the epidemic.”

The MSMGF welcomes these new foreign policy priorities and urges President Obama and Secretary Clinton to ensure LGBT human rights are integrated across U.S. Global Health policy and programs. In particular, the new policies and tools announced today – including the toolkit on LGBT rights for U.S. embassies and support for civil society announced through the Global Equity Fund -- should be cross-promoted via the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and integrated into training and outreach for PEPFAR Country Missions seeking to implement the HIV Prevention Guidance for MSM issued in May 2011.

“The world finds itself in a unique moment – if we seize the evidence in front of us and make good on implementing our commitments to most-at-risk populations, this could truly be the start of an HIV Free Generation,” said Kirsta Lauer, MSMGF policy associate. “Civil society has been at the forefront of advocating for communities at the margins of society, doing brave work to ensure that human rights have meaning in places close to home. Now, it is time for governments, civil society and all stakeholders to come together, tackle the tough issues, and turn the tide.”

To read Obama’s presidential memorandum, click HERE.

To read Secretary Clinton’s speech, click HERE.

About Global Forum on MSM & HIV

The Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) is an expanding network of AIDS organizations, MSM networks and advocates committed to ensuring robust coverage of and equitable access to effective HIV prevention, care, treatment, and support services tailored to the needs of gay men and other MSM. Guided by a Steering Committee of 20 members from 18 countries situated mainly in the Global South, and with administrative and fiscal support from AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), the MSMGF works to promote MSM health and human rights worldwide through advocacy, information exchange, knowledge production networking, and capacity building. To visit the MSMGF HIV and Law Page website, click HERE.