I’ve had wonderful opportunities to serve at a variety of Embassies and Consulates during my career, but one thing I’ve sacrificed is time at home in the U.S. I haven’t lived in my own country since 1998. I visit regularly, and in fact the State Department requires that diplomats spend at least a month on holiday in the U.S. between assignments, but because I’m not there on a day-to-day basis, changes in public attitudes and public mood that occur gradually may be more evident to me than they would be if I lived at home. Some changes are likely temporary—like the current polarization of our political space, or the sense of insecurity and pessimism caused by the current economic slowdown. But others are clearly fundamental, long-term trends, such as the incredible growth of visibility and influence of Indian Americans, or the reduced tolerance for cigarette smoking.
Looking back through U.S. history, one clear, long-term trend is our increasing acceptance of diversity, and with it the extension of equal rights and protections. Our founding fathers in the U.S. Declaration of Independence said “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Americans are proud of this philosophical legacy, but we also recognize that we did not, in fact, provide all men with equal rights for most of our history. The Constitution of the U.S. acknowledged slavery by apportioning representatives to the states through a formula that added to the number of “free Persons” another number representing three-fifths of “all other Persons.” It was only in 1866 that the sixteenth amendment to the Constitution provided equal protections to African American men, and only in 1920 that the nineteenth amendment extended constitutional protection to women. It took almost a century after the sixteenth amendment for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex. When John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, the election of a Catholic was considered revolutionary, just as President Obama’s election was a watershed moment for racial equality.
This trend of broadening U.S. legal protections and social acceptance continues to this day. Since the Civil Rights Act was signed, we have enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, age, and, most recently, genetic information. An area of focus today involves gay rights. The U.S. has not yet enacted legislation specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but President Clinton signed an executive order in 1998 banning discrimination in federal employment, and many states have broader protections, including recognition of same-sex marriage. The Consulate recently sponsored a Rainbow Film Festival to celebrate LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) pride month. The four films screened included documentaries and docudramas; all were based on true stories, highlighting the history of the gay rights movement in the U.S. One of the things that they made clear was that America’s acceptance of homosexuality is relatively recent and remains incomplete. In 1969, when the raid that is featured in the film “Stonewall Uprising” occurred, homosexual conduct was illegal in most of the U.S. Today, a majority of Americans favor permitting same sex marriage. Demonstrating how far we have come, on the occasion of Human Rights Day last year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton announced that promoting acceptance of gay rights around the world would be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.
A 2007 global attitude survey (http://pewglobal.org/files/pdf/258.pdf) asked people: “Should homosexuality be accepted by society?” 80 percent or more of citizens in most European countries said yes, and 49 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be socially accepted. South Asia, the Middle East and Africa had the lowest acceptance levels, with India at only 10 percent. In this context, it’s not surprising that some groups here in Hyderabad opposed the showing of films about the gay rights struggle in the U.S. Fortunately, we were able to go forward despite efforts to force a cancellation. The Consulate is respectful of those who hold different views, and will seek to avoid confrontations. But we will continue to treat LGBT issues as a human rights issue and engage actively to build respect for the rights of LGBT persons, and to show solidarity for those suffering from stigma and discrimination.