The International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2012, brought more than 23,000 medical professionals, advocates, policy makers, and people living with HIV/AIDS to Washington, D.C., from July 22-27 from more than 180 countries. The Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs organized a roundtable on the margins of the event with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists from the Western Hemisphere on July 23 to hear how AIDS is affecting LGBT persons in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Activists noted the stigma, discrimination, and violence their communities face on a daily basis because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to participants, transgender individuals are especially at risk of violence and discrimination. In most cases identification documents do not reflect their gender identity, which can make voting a difficult or even dangerous experience in countries where voting booths are separated by gender. This is a reality most people in the United States have never had to endure. Although I constantly engage in dialogue with LGBT activists, I can't help feeling frustrated and upset about what they have to go through every day of their lives.
Activists expressed their frustration that over the past few decades their work had to focus on HIV/AIDS in order to receive funding. They also highlighted the need for capacity building and support from the international community, since national or local governments typically still do not provide support for their efforts. I pointed out that today donor countries recognize the need to include human rights for LGBT persons as part of their human rights funding initiatives.
In response to their concerns, I discussed how the U.S. government actively works toward promoting and defending human rights, including the rights of LGBT persons. In fact, in December 2011 President Obama directed all U.S. agencies operating abroad to ensure that their foreign assistance promotes and protects these rights.
We genuinely believe that this work serves U.S. foreign policy interests and that it is in our long-term national security interest to promote respect for human rights abroad. We know countries that respect the human rights of all citizens are more stable, peaceful, and prosperous than countries that do not.
Despite significant progress, especially in our hemisphere, discrimination and violence against LGBT persons persist, hindering these communities' ability to live in dignity and participate as full members of society. Critics argue that LGBT people go against particular moral values or traditions, but as Secretary Clinton has stated, "no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us."
Although some countries in the Western Hemisphere are beginning to recognize the importance of protecting the rights of LGBT persons, and have taken different steps toward this goal, 11 countries in the English-speaking Caribbean Basin still criminalize consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. Even in countries that do not actively criminalize same-sex relations, discrimination and violence frequently occur against members of the LGBT community, and, in some cases the police and security forces have been implicated in crimes against LGBT persons.
Discrimination against LGBT persons also hampers efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to a UNAIDS study on HIV status in the Caribbean, there is a strong correlation between countries that criminalize consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex and higher rates of HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men, or MSM. In 2008, the rates of HIV among MSM in countries where this behavior is criminalized were much higher than in countries that don't have these laws. For example, in Jamaica, which criminalizes consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, the prevalence of HIV in MSM is nearly 32 percent compared to less than two percent in the general population. By contrast, the number drops considerably to six percent of MSM who are infected with HIV in a country such as the Dominican Republic where these laws don't exist.
We need to be fully aware that when individuals lack access to quality education and health care, decent work, and the freedom to be themselves, they are deprived of a dignified life and aren't able to contribute to society to the full extent of their abilities. Therefore, governments that neglect sections of the population, be it women, LGBT persons, or others, are limiting the full potential of their citizens, and as a result, hinder their nation's prosperity.
Only through our steadfast commitment and cooperation will it be possible to make even greater progress, so that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, or ethnicity, will have the right to openly love whom they love and be true to themselves without fear of violence or discrimination.
For more on our efforts to protect the human rights of LGBT persons please visit humanrights.gov and pepfar.gov. You can learn more about the Global Equality Fund here and view a fact sheet on the Department of State's Accomplishments Promoting the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People here.