Amid victory at home, lets advance LGBT rights abroad

The Defense of Marriage Act is overturned, Proposition 8 is long gone and what’s left are thousands of thank-you notes from all the brides and brides and grooms and grooms who were wed in 2014.

This June, as in years past, millions thronged city streets throughout the United States to celebrate Pride, affirming how far the LGBT community has come.

We should celebrate our victories at home, and at the same time we cannot ignore those living outside of our borders whose lives are in peril. In 2013, Russia banned “homosexual propaganda,” putting LGBT people and their allies in danger. India’s Supreme Court reinstated the nation’s criminalization of homosexuality. Nigeria passed a law that decrees homosexuality a crime punishable by death. This year, Uganda passed a law similar to Nigeria’s. Ethiopia is threatening to do the same.

This worldwide trend has found its way to 10 countries where LGBT people’s lives are at risk and where homosexuality is punishable by death. The list includes Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, 70 other countries have on their books criminal laws against sexual activity by LGBT people.

The time has come to march the Pride Parade outside our borders, to demonstrate to the world that LGBT rights are human rights. We’re here, we’re queer — yet our brothers and sisters are still dying, and we must do something to prevent it. As the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”

Thankfully, there is hope. Just a few years ago, in the United States of America, same-gender couples were deprived of equal treatment under the law. Yet today, some members of Congress and our executive branch are vigorously defending LGBT rights internationally. On June 13, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), along with 24 congressional co-sponsors, introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act. This bill directs the Department of State to establish a special envoy in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor with responsibility for foreign policy initiatives to protect the human rights of LGBT people. The need for this position is tied to our own ongoing struggle for equality. In the words of Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

The U.S. government is poised to address international LGBT human rights abuses. In previous years, the LGBT community was outside the White House protesting for our rights. This year, we were inside. On June 26, just days after Markey introduced his bill, I had the honor of attending the White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights in Washington with Robert Bank, executive vice president of American Jewish World Service. I joined 150 others, including faith leaders, philanthropists, representatives of banks and corporations, activists, journalists, international human rights workers and U.S. governmental agency personnel. We hailed from Guatemala, Russia, Nigeria, Uganda and Jamaica. We shared our stories. The international contingents appealed to the Americans with an urgent need for support.

It is my hope that the White House will heed this call. There is an immediate and critical step that President Barack Obama can take now to ensure that the international LGBT activists who joined us in Washington will leave knowing that the United States will do all it can to stop bigotry and promote the rights of LGBT people around the world. It is within the president’s power to appoint a special envoy for LGBT rights, one of the key goals of the International Human Rights Defense Act. The act may take months if not years to become law, but the president can launch this life-saving initiative today.

That is why I urge you to call and/or write to the White House, joining me in asking the president to appoint a special envoy for LGBT rights. In this way he can make sure that the forum I attended was not merely symbolic, but an inspirational milestone toward cementing his legacy as a champion of the rights of LGBT people worldwide.

I am proud to support this initiative as a rabbi, an American and a lesbian — but ultimately, it is the humanity of all people that hangs in the balance.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz serves Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. She is a board member of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and works closely with American Jewish World Service on global justice issues.