WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told U.S. diplomats and foreign aid workers on Tuesday to do more to advance gay rights abroad, a move that promotes U.S. human rights policy and appeals to a key Democratic constituency at home.
In a memo released the same day as pop singer and gay rights advocate Lady Gaga visited the White House, Obama said he was deeply concerned about violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people worldwide and called for efforts to prevent and respond faster to abuses.
But Obama’s message offered nothing new to activists campaigning for same-sex marriage in the United States, a sensitive political issue.
Nonetheless, his announcement was welcomed by a leading U.S.-based group representing gays and lesbians.
Gays and lesbians backed Obama strongly in the 2008 and he is counting on their support for his 2012 campaign, which is set to be a tougher slog as a result of the weak economy and strong polling numbers for conservative Republicans.
Obama said last year his views on marriage for gay couples were “constantly evolving” but has since held a cautious line on an issue that could alienate social conservatives ahead of next November’s presidential vote. He says it should be up to states to decide and not the federal government.
Obama had no plans to meet Lady Gaga on Tuesday because he was in Kansas for a speech advocating for middle-class tax cuts.
The flamboyant singer had pushed for the repeal of a ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military. The repeal took effect in September, one of Obama’s major achievements on gay issues.
She was to meet officials from the White House public engagement office to discuss her new “Born This Way Foundation,” focused on fighting bullying and homophobia and instilling more confidence in young people.
Younger voters, an important demographic for Obama, are particularly accepting of homosexuality and may respond well to initiatives on gay causes, including Tuesday’s commitment to do more abroad amid what U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has described as an increase in hate crimes.
But Obama’s initiative faces challenges. Some close U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia have strict laws regarding homosexuality, and it remains illegal in much of Africa as well as in Malaysia and other countries.
The nonprofit group Transgender Europe said last month that 116 transgender people were murdered globally in the first nine months of 2011.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s directive should help put the weight of the United States behind efforts to ensure people are not jailed, attacked or killed “because of who they are.”
Obama called in his memo for U.S. government bodies and agencies to report back within six months on their actions to better protect the rights of gay people abroad, including refugees fleeing persecution due to their sexual orientation.
In Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington had committed more than $3 million to start a global equality fund to support the work of civil society groups working on gay rights issues.
She also stressed it was important for countries worldwide to see gay rights as human rights and said “it should never be a crime to be gay.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Xavier Briand