USAID and LGBT Rights: Staying Ahead of the Curve

By Donald Steinberg, President and CEO of World Learning

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Laverrue/Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Agency for International Development has just issued a groundbreaking, even historic, new vision for supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals within the agency and in its assistance programs abroad (read the draft version). Good for them.

Sidestepping issues of personal values, moral judgments or “hot-button” topics, the vision rightly adopts a pragmatic approach toward LGBT issues. It asserts that U.S. development assistance will never be fully effective unless it draw on the full contributions of the entire population, including marginalized groups such as the LGBT community, women, young people, ethnic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities, indigenous people, and displaced persons.

I learned the importance of this pragmatic approach long ago. My father served for many years as president of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and as a high school principal in Los Angeles. Three decades ago, he was the first administrator in his region to launch a program to support and counsel LGBT students on campus. The program was called “Project 10” — reflecting the fact that perhaps 10 percent of the student population was LGBT. He came under huge attack for this program; not so much in our community, but mostly from a few officials in Washington. One senator threatened to destroy his career if one penny of federal money was used to support the program.

I remember calling my father to offer encouragement and congratulations on his work to defend the rights of these students. My father said that yes, human rights was a motivation for his work, but more important was the fact that students who were uncomfortable with their sexual identity were far more likely to drop out of school, to abuse drugs or alcohol, to be bullied, and to have problems in the classroom. Project 10 was a natural part of his lifetime role as an educator. He said, “How can we teach these kids algebra and colonial history, and ignore issues of sexual identity that will fundamentally shape the rest of their lives?”

USAID is already putting its vision into practice by supporting the political, economic and social empowerment of the LGBT community, and protecting LGBT people during periods of conflict and humanitarian emergencies, when they’re most vulnerable. It is mainstreaming LGBT issues into programs in food security, global health, climate change, economic growth, and democracy and governance. From Colombia and Honduras, to Mali and Uganda, to Vietnam and Pakistan, USAID is supporting local groups promoting LGBT rights and well-being. It is also using its convening authority to expand public awareness of LGBT issues, meeting openly with activists from Mongolia and Romania to Kenya and South Africa.

Two years ago, USAID was among the first U.S. government agencies to include language in its project proposals, grants and contracts that strongly discourages implementing partners from discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Working with the State Department, USAID is supporting the Secretary’s Global Equality Fund to strengthen LGBT advocates around the world. And it launched a global partnership with other governments, advocacy groups and universities to support LGBT grassroots groups in a half-dozen target countries; identify and disseminate best practices in promoting the economic, social and political well-being of LGBT persons; and fund research to quantify the economic cost of discrimination against LGBT communities around the world.

With the strong encouragement of the President and Secretaries Kerry and Clinton, USAID publishes a recruitment brochure directed at LGBT applicants, provides full benefits for same-sex domestic partners, assigns openly gay mission directors to lead key missions abroad, and provides awards to personnel leading in the LGBT space.

Most of all, the agency is involving the LGBT community in partner countries, not just as victims, but as planners, implementers and beneficiaries of development programs under the watchwords, “Nothing about them without them.”

I remember hearing from a USAID officer who helped develop a new on-line awareness program on LGBT issues for new officers throughout the agency. In rolling the training program out, he said: “When I was a teenager, I knew two things about myself. First, I wanted to spend my career fighting global poverty, illiteracy and suffering. Second, I was gay. I never imagined it would be possible to create a life that encompassed both of these facts. Now, at USAID, I realize that it’s not only possible; it’s essential.”

Written by

World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store