America has a storied history of fighting for right and freedom “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” We have shed blood and spent treasure to ensure that people around the world could be free. As a nation, we are especially concerned with ensuring the safety and prosperity of those who have been oppressed by their governments.
Today, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are in need of this protection. These efforts will require an America active on the world stage, and even an America willing to use force.
The Ugandan government is poised to ban “touch[ing] another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.” In Iran, one can be arrested, imprisoned, flogged and executed simply for being gay. The same is true throughout much of the Middle East with the exception of Israel, home to Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the Middle East. In 2007, 18 Nigerians faced death by stoning for celebrating a gay wedding. In Venezuela, the police regularly attack and harass the LGBT community. These actions go against the United States’ conception of fundamental human rights, which the U.S. applies to all its citizens, whether gay or straight — Matthew Shepard’s murderers are spending the rest of their lives in jail.
There are, of course, other marginalized groups in need of American defense. How a regime treats its LGBT population is often a litmus test of its liberalism; the nations that oppress homosexuals are likely to do so to other minority groups. Many of the tactics used to help these communities, however, don’t apply to defending LGBT citizens of oppressive countries. Like women, those who identify as LGBT exist as a perpetual minority within a country. We can’t partition a country or airlift its LGBT population. We cannot resettle them as we did with Soviet Jewry trapped behind the Iron Curtain because they are not an isolated community and because they exist in every generation.
As such, the spreading of liberal institutions is the only way to permanently guarantee the protection of those who identify as LGBT.
America is the only nation in a position to establish such institutions in regimes without a tradition of such institutions. While many Western European countries generally treat their LGBT populations better than America treats its own, these countries have not demonstrated the moral temerity to defend human rights outside of their borders. The other would-be world powers on this issue — those with economic and military might to take on a campaign of protection — are either silent on the issue of LGBT rights or, like China, worse. And given the farce that has become the United Nations Human Rights Council, we cannot expect too much from them, either.
Although defending LGBT rights abroad is a good in itself, it is also in America’s national interest. Successfully creating regimes that prioritize the rights of their citizens increases the United States’ prestige abroad. Not only does such prestige — especially when that prestige comes from a reputation as the defender of freedoms abroad — make other countries more likely to be on our side in struggles that are less clear cut, but removing despotic, oppressive regimes removes a threat to American leadership. Forcing illiberal regimes to reform is pushing them to have interests that closer resemble our own.
There are those who would say that America should not go to the mat on an issue that has not been clearly adopted at home. It’s true that ensuring LGBT rights is hardly something that is of paramount importance to most people in their day-to-day lives (though we care about it a lot on college campuses). But whatever people think about LGBT rights, Americans should value and be willing to fight for human rights of all people.
Moreover, American interest is not a static phenomenon. Over time our priorities change; moreover, we have the power to change them. Let us not allow today’s standards of perfection to limit the good we can do. Even if the defense of minority rights is not prominently in the minds of Americans right now, it would be a shame to look back in five, 10 or 40 years and think we missed an opportunity. When the United States has turned a blind eye to human rights violations, we regret it — just think of Rwanda or our hesitancy to involve ourselves in World War II.
America must choose: We can scale back our commitment to defend liberalism or we can defend the human rights of those who identify as LGBT. The former is keeping with our best traditions. We defend human rights. We argue for them — at times more or less vociferously than others. And sometimes to defend them we must use force.
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.