Michael Vazquez, independent policy advisor, discusses LGBTQ+ rights around the world and the Biden administration’s efforts to promote and defend these rights at home and abroad.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice and Foreign Policy webinar. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Michael Vazquez with us today to talk about LGBTQ+ rights around the world. We have shared his bio with you, so I will just give you a few highlights.
Michael Vazquez is a public theologian, community organizer, and communications strategist. He serves as an advisor to government institutions, political candidates, religious and spiritual leaders, and nonprofit organizations on issues at the intersection of religion, politics, and social justice. Mr. Vazquez served as communications director at the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at USAID, the religion and faith director at the Human Rights Campaign, and as a fellow at Faith and Public Life, and founder of Brave Commons. He was also an advisor to the faith engagement team for the Biden-Harris campaign.
So, Michael, thanks very much for being with us. I would like it if you could set the table and talk a little bit about what is being done to promote LGBTQ+ rights in the United States and around the world, and how faith communities can contribute to this.
VAZQUEZ: Absolutely. Thank you again for having me. Hi, everyone. Want to wish everyone a happy Lunar New Year to everyone who celebrates, and a happy Black History and Black Futures Month.
I want to begin by talking about the role that faith communities, particularly faith leaders, have always held in communities throughout history as truth tellers and storytellers, right? That’s one of the principal roles that faith leaders have held, and not just clergy but cantors, singers, choirs, artists. Their role has been to disseminate truth and to tell a story about community in order to edify a community towards a particular end. Typically, throughout faith traditions, that’s towards the common good. How do we ensure that every member of our community and those that serve the communities that surround us experience equity, experience justice, safety, and security? And storytelling is a means of achieving that, and truth telling is a means of achieving that.
One of the truths most religious traditions hold as central and core to their faith is that every individual has inherent dignity and value. You find that Islam. You find that in Christianity. You find that in Judaism. You find that in Hinduism. Across traditions, you find this core belief that every individual in the entirety of creation has inherent dignity and value. And so while there might be disagreements about policy, while there might be disagreements about positions on gender and sexuality broadly speaking, every tradition has maintained that there is dignity in every human person. And I think that’s a critical thing for us to set the table with because as we look at how faith leaders and faith communities both domestically and globally can engage in advancing LGBTQ rights, we need to go back to the core tenets that these communities hold and uphold and call on them to draw out of those traditions in order to advance justice for the LGBTQ community and, as a result, advance justice and equity for all communities.
Pope Francis speaks on this by saying that disagreements of a philosophical or theological nature between faiths or between particular groups and people of faith are not obstacles to uniting to pursue shared goals as long as everyone involved shares a concern for the common good. And so I think the first and foremost thing that religious leaders and faith communities can do is tell the truth, right? Tell the truth that I might have my own thoughts and beliefs that I was raised in, that I learned in my church, or in my synagogue, or in my temple, but I do believe that every person has dignity; thus, if everyone has dignity, then everyone should have the same rights ascribed to them and those rights should not be taken away. That should be the foundation, right?
I think that what we have seen, is as this story has been told both in the U.S. and abroad, as this—the reality that LGBTQ people—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer people—have human—basic dignity, and thus have—should have access to the full diversity of human rights available to everyone else. As this has been shared, we have seen an increase—the data has shown—Pew shows there’s been an increase of acceptance globally for LGBTQ people and rights that should be afforded to us. Likewise, the Public Religious (sic; Religion) Research Institute has shown that the majority of people of faith in the United States support comprehensive protections against discrimination for the LGBTQ community.
So I think the beginning is just tell the truth. Tell the story, right, that people—everyone should have access to rights. That should be foundational, right? And thus, if we start with the fact that I have inherent dignity, and you have inherent dignity, and everyone listening to this call has inherent dignity, then the immediate response that should be, then, we need to make sure that our policies reflect that we all have that dignity, that we all should have access to rights.
So this begins with looking at the hard truths—the hard truths and then the hopeful things, right? The hard truth is that there has been a campaign globally by the religious right based in the United States and elsewhere, but primarily in the United States, to advance anti-LGBTQ policies, to support—whether that’s the anti-sodomy laws that we see in the Middle East and Africa; that’s—or we see throughout Africa some other anti-LGBTQ laws that are promoted by Catholic bishops, particularly in Uganda as an example. Throughout the world we see these, first, colonial holdover laws, colonial anti-sodomy laws that were left behind by European colonial powers and that have remained on the books ever since these colonial powers left these regions. And then you see, right, outside groups—outside conservatives—conservative religious groups pushing for the maintenance of these anti-LGBTQ laws, whether that’s banning relationships, whether that’s making being LGBTQ against the law and punishable by imprisonment and incarceration, or by death. We see that a lot of the advocacy for these laws come from minority religious groups in the United States and elsewhere.
And we saw in order to help sustain this, in the previous administration we saw Secretary Pompeo—Secretary of State Pompeo institute the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, right? There’s a close connection between this idea that LGBTQ rights must be prevented that these conservative religious groups are pushing, and this idea that religious freedom must be protected from, over, and against LGBTQ rights; that religious freedom, particularly I would say conservative religious freedom, was under threat globally and must be protected by—against or from the advancement of LGBTQ rights. And so the Ministerial on Religious Freedom elevated religious freedom above other rights or made a claim contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that gives us a broad array of equal—coequal human rights, this ministerial and the previous administration claimed that there was—there’s religious freedom and then there’s all other rights, right? And we need to reframe that.
Now, part of that comes from religious leaders coming into the room and saying, no, we believe that all rights are equal. The new secretary of state, Secretary Blinken, refers to this and says religious freedom is coequal with other human rights because human rights are indivisible, right? We need religious leaders to stand in that also, not to say that our rights as religious people or people of faith are greater than the rights of other people. In order to safeguard LGBTQ rights and to advance LGBTQ rights globally, we have to get to the heart of this debate that there is religious freedom and religious rights in opposition to LGBTQ rights.
What we see, again, is that the growing—the data shows a growing support amongst people of faith for LGBTQ rights. And we also have to recognize that LGBTQ people are also, they, themselves, people of faith, right? Myself, as a person of faith, have worked alongside a lot of other people of faith who identify, who are also LGBTQ. And so when we come into the conversation, we’re often forgotten as people who have value to add to this conversation on human rights. And we’re forgotten as, it’s only religious people over here and LGBTQ people over here when, in fact, there’s a greater diversity in humanity, and thus our rights should be contextualized in that way.
Religious freedom is a major global issue. I will say that. It is a major global issue that we have to address with the rise of anti-Semitism, with the rise of Islamophobia, with the crackdowns on religious minorities around the world, there’s work that we have to do. There’s critical work that we have to do to ensure that religious minorities are protected, but we need to be able to distinguish between protecting religious freedom for religious minorities who are actually being persecuted, and the attempts by certain communities to use religious freedom as a weapon against other minority groups, which is what I believe we see in this battle for LGBTQ rights both domestically and abroad.
There are two major policies I want to speak to briefly and then we can get into it a little bit more later. But we have the GLOBE Act introduced by Senator Markey and we have the Equality Act, which passed the House for the second time last February. So we’re coming up—it was at the end of last February, so we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Equality Act, which would provide comprehensive civil rights protections in matters of public accommodation, housing, employment, credit, et cetera, for LGBTQ people. Passed the House last February. We’re still waiting to see what its fate will be in the Senate.
But I want to speak to this one first before getting to the GLOBE Act because I think what we’ve seen is a large group of religious support for comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights protections in the United States. And as the United States has pushed forward LGBTQ rights domestically, we have seen a direct correlation to the expansion of civil rights and human rights for LGBTQ people around the world. Passing the Equality Act would provide a foundation for nations around the world that have not advanced comprehensive rights either to just look at, here’s a blueprint for what we can do to ensure that our own people are protected, right? Regardless of what some of our neighbors might believe and think about gender and sexuality broadly speaking, we want to ensure that our neighbors who are LGBTQ are protected and afforded the same rights as everyone else. And so the Equality Act provides—simply by saying, the United States wants to be a leader, which is what the Biden administration has said. It wants to be a leader in the advancement of LGBTQ rights both domestically and globally. What we need to do as a country is to enshrine civil rights protections by passing the Equality Act, which would ultimately put LGBTQ people under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights legislation.
The GLOBE Act, on the other hand, would make preventing and responding to discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people a foreign policy priority. It would permanently create a special envoy within the State Department to protect the human rights of LGBTQ people, which we did see. The Biden administration appointed Jessica Stern as that special envoy, and Jay Gilliam, a former colleague of mine, as the senior LGBTQI coordinator at the USAID. And so these two appointments, outside of the passage of the GLOBE Act, are indicators of the work the Biden administration is doing to move along our foreign policy priorities, but passing the GLOBE Act would cement the rights of LGBTQ people globally as a major foreign policy priority for the country beyond the Biden administration, which is critical.
There’s a lot of issues that we’re facing globally in the rights of LGBTQ people who are being persecuted. Whether it’s those anti-sodomy laws I alluded to earlier or the global fight to finally end HIV/AIDS, there’s a lot of work that remains to be done. And so what we need is legislation that religious leaders can stand behind, as they have for decades in the United States and globally, to push these pieces of legislation forward.
“In the long run”—I’m quoting Marie Juul Petersen from the Danish Institute for Human Rights—“In the long run, the insistence on incompatibility between freedom of religion or belief in gender equality has the potential to destabilize and delegitimize the broader human rights system.” Agreeing with her, I believe that the work that we have to do as religious leaders, as theologians, as religious communities is to speak up and tell the story, tell the truth about the fact that we are people who comprehensively and overwhelmingly support the rights of LGBTQ people in policy and within our communities, and allow that to help move these critical policies forward and cement human rights for our community.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Michael. That was terrific, and apologies for the technical recording prompts.
VAZQUEZ: That’s OK. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: And not prompts.
So, in any case, we’re going to turn now to all of you for your questions and comments. And if you want to raise your hand, I will call you. Don’t be shy. And you can also write your question in the Q&A box. If you do that there, please say who you are so we know where you’re coming from.
There is a written question right now, which is by an anonymous attendee, and it’s very long. I’m going to first go to Bruce Knotts. He has raised his hand. Bruce. And please say who you are and unmute yourself.
KNOTTS: Hi. My name is Bruce Knotts, and I direct the Unitarian Universalist Association office at the United Nations.
And we’ve been working on LGBT rights at the United Nations for a long time. And I’m just wondering if you have any ideas or thoughts about what the United Nations can do to better protect LGBT rights. And let me just further say that it’s my impression that I’m noticing somewhat of a diminishment of energy around LGBT rights lately than we had in earlier years. So I’m somewhat concerned in that way. Thank you.
VAZQUEZ: Yeah, no, thank you. I appreciate that question, Bruce.
I think that there are a couple things. I want to speak to the second thing you mentioned first, is that I think when you look at the broad spectrum of issues, even just domestically, that we’re facing in the United States, I believe there’s a lot of passion and desire to move, let’s say, the Equality Act forward, to move LGBTQ rights forward. Last year was the highest year on record again for violence against the transgender community, for fatal violence. So we’re in a critical moment where we need action. But I do think that with the issues threatening American democracy, with the shaky foundations that we’re facing, with the divisions in the country, a lot of what are also LGBTQ issues are democratic issues. Preserving American democracy protects LGBTQ people in the United States.
And so I think there is some of that that I’ve seen. Let’s shift our focus as advocates to preserve voting rights so that therefore we can ensure the Equality Act does pass. Let’s ensure that LGBTQ rights have a right—LGBTQ people have a right to the ballot box, et cetera. So I do think there’s some of that dynamic, but I do think there are a lot of ways—if you look at some of the polling numbers, a lot of people think when it comes to the Equality Act that these rights already exist.
And so part of the public education that needs to take place is reminding folks that just because we got marriage equality in the United States, or in certain countries around the world, doesn’t mean that we’ve achieved the pinnacle of human rights, and LGBTQ people are just happy and throwing parties and everyone’s just content, and everyone can go home now, we’re fine. I think there’s a reframing, right? We have this—a victory today, but we have all these losses the next day. And how do we continue fighting? And part of that is the way that we message, right? We still have work to do. And I think some people have gotten exhausted, and they thought—and some people think we’ve achieved it.
I think on the matter of what the UN can do, I believe the United Nations have for some time a working group of faith leaders partnering with the UN to advance LGBTQ rights globally, and how to navigate the complexities that can arise in those conversations. And so I think having a greater foundation of religious engagement on the matter would support the work that the UN is trying to do around the world to advance LGBTQ rights.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. All right, so just looking now, I’m going to call upon Julie Schiwal, who is at the—she’s a program specialist at the Religion and Inclusive Societies Program at U.S. Institute of Peace, USIP. So, Julia, can you unmute yourself and ask your question?
SCHIWAL: Yeah, for sure. I guess I’m just curious because I deal with religious actors very frequently at the religion team at USIP. And we are working on an approach to include gender and sexual minorities in peacebuilding. And pretty much I agree with you that many religions have a sense of universal dignity, right? But I think that in our work when I talk to people about this who have disparate views on GSM inclusion—and I just use GSM for LGBTQ because it internationally works. Dignity is not the ground I’ve made progress on.
It’s not even really about that. It’s more about cultural history and the needs of people. And I feel like you can kind of circumvent that whole theological debate and work with religious actors a little bit more effectively if you kind of take a more pragmatic approach that doesn’t get into the grounds of, like, dignity in Islam, right? You just talk about public health and HIV, right? You talk about women’s groups in Pakistan that are already working with trans women. You just stick with the local, pragmatic approach. So I guess have you had success using this sense of universal dignity in a global LGBTQ context? Because I haven’t.
And second off, I guess, I’m just looking for your thoughts, since you’re familiar with me, on how are we going to be doing global LGBTQ rights in the future? Especially considering that this human rights approach has largely failed over the past decade? It doesn’t get enough pull.
VAZQUEZ: Oh, absolutely. I agree with you 100 percent, Julia. I think if we had more time I could have gotten into that some more. I think for me, I think I’ve seen dignity, both in the U.S. and in Latin America, be a strong motivating factor in these conversations. But even Latin America is a good example of where recontextualizing the language has been hugely successful. In communities where language around family and community is more important than dignity, we shift the dignity conversation to that. It doesn’t mean we stop talking about the inherent dignity in every person, but we use localized language.
And so I think some of the struggle I saw at USAID, and I think remains in a lot of global development work outside of federal government, is that folks are not willing to do the historical work—some of what you’re referencing, the cultural contextualization work you’re referencing—to be able to get—be in community, and talking in a way that makes sense for folks. It doesn’t shift us away from dignity, but we still contextualize, right? A lot of our global human rights and development work has been incredibly Western. It’s been very much, white folks show up elsewhere and say: This is how this should pan out, and this is what this should look like, because it worked in Ohio. And that’s not helpful, right?
I think Administrator Power has been a good example of trying to push for more localized development, but some of the bureaucratic issues we face in government is limiting the ways that I think we can achieve what you’re talking about, right? I still think it’s critical, because I think ultimately if we don’t address dignity and the inherent value of individuals, we end up having is, OK, we addressed—and this has happened. I’ve seen this with the ways in which certain Catholic actors have engaged globally, is we might work and push for access to the right HIV preventative measures and medications, et cetera, but not engaging in the fundamental theological conversation around, these people have inherent dignity, even though the Catholic—the catechism of the Catholic Church says that you’re intrinsically disordered, right?
And this gets, in part, to mental health issues and mental health crises for people who maintain their faith traditions even alongside their LGBTQI+ identities. We need to be able to say, no, you still have worth and value, right? It's not like we’re helping you in spite of gender sexual minority status. We’re helping you because you are human, you’re my neighbor, you’re my community, you’re my family. Thus, you are worthy of the support we’re giving you. So I think it’s both/and. I think a lot of religious actors need to be able to have that framing to get to some of the core issues that are proliferating a lot the issues we’re facing.
FASKIANOS: I think—just to follow up on that—do you have the stats on the mental health issues for the community? It is very significant.
VAZQUEZ: Yeah, I don’t have them off hand. I can tell you that the suicidality rates are somewhere around four to eight times higher for transgender individuals in the United States than for non-transgender folks. The number shifts depending on race and ethnicity. But it’s drastic, right? And a lot of times—I mean, when you look at youth homelessness in the United States, for example, 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. The majority of those folks—of those kids, right, babies—are on the street because they come from a highly conservative religious family who has kicked them out because of identifying as LGBTQ. And so I don’t have all of the data, but that’s the one that’s most striking to me. The mental health issues amongst homeless youth are majority LGBTQ—or, close to majority LGBTQ, is exacerbated by conservative religious ideology.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Steven Paulikas of All Saints’ Episcopal Church of Park Slope. So, Steve, if you can unmute yourself.
PAULIKAS: Hi, Irina, great to see you. And thank you, Michael, so much. I really appreciate your theological framing and the idea of dignity of the human being. And it’s really great. There was a group of faithful mostly LGBTQ-affirming folks in the Republic of Georgia, in Tbilisi, who formed an Episcopal community there. And you might be aware that over the summer during Tbilisi Pride, the Georgian Orthodox Church organized a mob which attacked the Pride celebration and ransacked the offices of Tbilisi Pride. And our community went into hiding because it was so dangerous. It was really totally heartbreaking.
But the thing we kind of learned from that was that the Orthodox folks were consulting—actively consulting with American religious actors, who sort of helped them organize this. And I’m sure you’ve seen this pattern around the world. And it kind of occurs to me as you’re speaking that kind of to get to the nut of the problem, I think that the main parties that need to be given this message are actually American religious organizations who project and export a sort of colonial-based anti-LGBTQ agenda. So that’s kind of the incredibly difficult thing to do. But have you found any successful strategies for being able to engage with the actual American religious actors who are sort of fomenting hatred around the world?
VAZQUEZ: Yeah, absolutely. A couple things that immediately come to mind—first, thank you for that. I feel like that gets right into a little bit of what I shared earlier about the issues of religious freedom globally being much more dynamic and complex than particularly the previous administration attempted to paint, and what conservative—primarily Evangelical and conservative Catholic American groups attempt to paint, right? This idea that Christianity globally is under assault, and we must protect Christianity at all costs, and that this fight for LGBTQ rights is an assault on Christianity, to summarize.
I was grateful, for example, to Administrator Power, who issued a statement in response to not what happened in Georgia, but what happened referencing what was taking place in Ghana in recent years. Her quote is: That we also call attention to government crackdowns on LGBTQI-affirming faith communities in Africa, listing that among other religious minority groups that need to be protected. And that was on International Religious Freedom Day this past October.
I think some of what, first, passage of the GLOBE Act would do is make it possible to—in the United States sanctions regime to include the protection of LGBTQ rights, being able to sanction foreign governments for not protecting their own citizens from these kinds of assaults that you’re referencing, what took place in Ghana, et cetera. I think when it comes to engaging with U.S. actors who are the—I agree with you—are the principal players pushing forward this anti-LGBTQ agenda globally, what I’ve—the thing I found most interesting is private dialogue, which is in a lot of ways, I’ll just be absolutely honest with you all, is incredibly annoying, right? We don’t all have the time to sit down and have one-on-one conversations with every individual conservative faith leader in the country in an attempt to persuade them to do otherwise.
But that is part of what I’ve seen to be successful, seeing Catholic bishops move from far-right to center-right. I’ve seen some Catholic bishops move from center to center-left, some issuing—like Bishop Stowe of Kentucky—issuing a statement in support of the Equality Act, the first time a Catholic bishop in U.S. history has supported LGBTQ rights legislation. That has come as a result of these kind of private dialogues with these leaders. That is not, in and of itself, sufficient enough to achieve what we need to achieve. But I do think we need to have a greater conversation about how much power is afforded to these groups.
On the contrary, I think we don’t give enough attention to the religious left. The religious left is incredibly powerful and active. The Center for American Progress Faith Initiative released a report, I believe it was, last year, if not it was 2020, on the ways in which this conversation and this dialogue is portrayed in the media. And oftentimes the data’s shown that while there is an overwhelming support for LGBTQ rights amongst religious people, that when this conversation is portrayed by major news networks and print media, et cetera, what you see is conservative religious people and secular LGBTQ people.
So part of what we need to do is a communications and messaging strategy, and shifting the dialogue. Actually, the majority of people of faith, the majority of religious people actually support LGBTQ rights. So let’s stick to that. But that also means working with media partners and encouraging them or pressuring them, exhorting them, whatever language you want to use, right? Whatever fits your approach, to shift the conversation from one of this false dichotomy between religion and support for LBGTQ people, and showing as one as, no, the majority of people support and identify and recognize the dignity of LGBTQ people and their rights. That, again, is not the whole picture, but I think passing legislation, changing the way that we message, helps reframe and thus remove power from these institutions—conservative religious institutions that are proliferating here and around the world.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the written question from Luciano Kovacs, who is the area coordinator for Middle East and Europe at the Presbyterian Church and a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency LGBTQIA+ working group.
And his question is: What is your suggestion of how to navigate our affirming advocacy work for queer people across the globe, and the need to not harm partners globally where anti-LGBTQ laws may affect them, if they were associated by their governments to our advocacy work?
VAZQUEZ: Absolutely. On the first issue, I think what—one thing that I would love—I would personally love to see, and I think would be incredibly effective and helpful, is providing more resources to affirming LGBTQ faith groups, both domestically and abroad. Some of the biggest issues they face—even though we see a larger population of both—particularly domestically, we’re seeing a locus of issues, an export of hate, et cetera. I think if we were able to fund, support, resource more affirming LGBTQ faith groups that already exist, right? We don’t need to create new ones. We don’t need to start another nonprofit, create another NGO, create a new bureaucracy. What we need to do is resource those that exist to do the work they’re already doing.
So a lot of these groups are incredibly under-resourced. When compared to an organization within the infrastructure of the religious right that are incredibly well-funded, incredibly well-established and -resourced, both in media, financially, et cetera, we need to be able to shift and redistribute resources to support what is the majority opinion in protecting the human rights of LGBTQ folks. And I’m not seeing the question in the chat. Do you want to—
FASKIANOS: Sure. I’m sorry, I dismissed it because I asked it.
VAZQUEZ: It’s OK.
FASKIANOS: And so it—how to navigate our affirming advocacy work and then need to not harm partners globally where anti-LGBTQ laws may affect them if they were associated by their governments to our advocacy work.
VAZQUEZ: Right. I think that, again, not to harp on legislation, because the legislation isn’t the end-all, be-all, it is a critical component of our advocacy work. It is one piece of broader human rights organizing globally. I think, again, the GLOBE Act would provide the provisions for the U.S. government to respond in scenarios where, let’s say, it’s the Republic of Georgia cracking down—or, supporting the crackdown on LGBTQ-affirming faith groups or other LGBTQ groups. Being able to respond in any number of ways, sanctions regime, et cetera, would—those are tools that we currently don’t have and are not equipped to respond to. And so it’s often—you see attempts to support advocates on the ground, advocates globally. But we can’t, because those resources aren’t in place.
I think it is more critical, right—in particular regions it is critical that we support in private as much as possible. I’ve seen a lot of advocates even in the United States that work particularly with transgender individuals and transgender groups needing to work in secret. And we need to continue to provide that safety net to those groups. We cannot—there is, thankfully, a lot of freedom now which did not exist even twenty years ago in the United States. There’s a lot of freedom now to be out and proud in a lot of spaces in the United States. There are parts of the country where that’s still not the case. That is not true elsewhere. That is not a blanket statement we can say for everywhere. That there are just Pride parades that have happened—y’all know this, right?
And so I’ve seen a desire of certain advocates. We want to be out, and proud, and be free. In places where that is a threat to the life and safety and dignity of the individual, we can’t, right? And so work in secret needs to continue to happen. And finding ways to provide the resources necessary, whether that’s educational resources, financial resources, asylum resources for these individuals and communities should be on our priority list before trying to push folks into a more public setting.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Ani Zonneveld, who has her hand raised. Ani, president of Muslims for Progressive Values. Oh. OK. It looks like she lowered her hand. All right. So moving on—
VAZQUEZ: Hi, Ani. (Laughter.) An old colleague.
FASKIANOS: OK. That’s too bad. I’m going to go next to Dominic Bocci, who is at CFR, and also at the Council for Global Equality.
So, knowing that there’s a significant amount of work that needs to be done about domestic and international LBGTQ+ rights, what would you suggest the Biden administration focus on in terms of their global approach? Decriminalization, increased funding for LGBTQ+ civil society groups? And what is the likelihood of the passing of the GLOBE Act, given the gridlock that we’re seeing in Washington?
VAZQUEZ: Right. The likelihood of the GLOBE Act passing is right alongside the likelihood of the Equality Act passing. I think it’s caught up with a lot of critical civil rights legislation beyond LGBTQ rights. It’s similar—in a similar situation as voting rights reform, criminal justice reform, et cetera. And so I’m not a pessimist, though. I believe that anything is possible, right? And so I’m hopeful that we will still be able to push along, right, these critical pieces of legislation to transform the experience and lives of LGBTQ people, both in the United States and abroad. I think in terms of what the Biden administration can focus on globally, I think decriminalization is absolutely a priority and is the global fight to end HIV/AIDS. I think those two come immediately to mind, because those are things that are threatening the literal lives of our community.
And so before we can get to—I think there’s—as a case study perhaps, I think a lot of attention was given the marriage equality battle in the United States and in other countries around the world. Unfortunately, I think, marriage was least of our priorities. It was important. I think marriage equality is a critical right. It’s a victory that we achieved, and we celebrate. It’s critical that folks around the world are able to access that same right. But compared to other issues, like when folks—when trans folks are under assault in the United States and around the world, right? There are folks living in countries that have criminalized just simply existing as an LGBTQI person. That is a major issue and those should be major priorities.
And so I think making sure that the—we look at victories like marriage equality is yay, great, awesome, amazing. But then we truly refocus on what is threatening the actual lives of individuals and how can we protect them and end those things? So more investments—which we’ve seen the Biden administration make some significant moves towards particularly the fight on HIV/AIDS. And I think some more work under criminalization should really shift this battle globally. And I think also the way in which—Secretary Blinken has already done this in the reframing of the religious freedom language, but additional work to reexamine and shift how we’re engaging in the conversation around religious freedom globally will significantly help some of these issues that we’re facing when it comes to LGBTQ rights as it pertains to religious actors being involved.
I think you’re still on mute. I’m sorry.
FASKIANOS: How long have I been doing this? OK.
VAZQUEZ: It happens to all of us. (Laughter.)
FASKIANOS: Barbara McBee has written a question on—Barbara, would you like to ask it yourself?
MCBEE: I think there might be two there. Hi.
FASKIANOS: There are. (Laughs.) That’s why we’d like you to ask it. (Laughs.)
MCBEE: Which one? Thank you. I’m Barbara McBee. Soka Gakkai Buddhist Organization.
And I think what’s pressing and marvelous is that you started off your dialogue with the inherent dignity of life. That is literally written into our core values. But if you really don’t feel that, which I think is at the core of the justification for abusing GLBTQ people. I am also gay, so I have a particular interest in your thoughts about how in our dialogues—and I have done much of that—how in our dialogues, one-to-one, they are helpful, they are not the be-all, end-all. And perhaps they affect a larger scope. In some cases, they are negated. But my questions are two: If you sincerely do not believe in the inherent dignity of—and value of all, how, particularly faith-based people, can we encourage further the development of that across all religions, Abrahamic included? And what are the current laws? If last year was the worst year in our history of trans murders, what are the laws on the books? And what is being done to protect trans men and women? Thank you. Nice to see you, Irina,you look great. And thank you, Michael.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
VAZQUEZ: Thank you, Barbara. I appreciate that so much. I think absolutely. I think I will come back—I always come back to this. I know a lot of folks in the field always come back to, we have inherent dignity and value. And I think the Abrahamic traditions absolutely have this in their core value. You look at Genesis, which is a text shared by Jews and Christians, as saying that God made humanity in God’s image, right? And so that’s page one, right? That’s on the first page. Every individual created reflects the image of their creator. That’s the theological assertion on page one.
And so that means you share the image of God. I have the image of God. My neighbor has the image of God. That person that cut me off this morning, they have the image of God in them too. Or even the people that frustrate us most, people who are the most different from us, they all have in them—the bear the image of God. That’s one example of many that we could point to. And thus, if someone bears the image of God, no matter how different they are from me, I have a duty and responsibility as someone who cares about the common good to protect them, right?
And there are myriad of examples of folks with this text as a core text and tenet of their faith, who have done horrific things. Who have used that same—these same scriptures to advocate for slavery, to advocate for the forced removal of indigenous people throughout the world, and particularly in the North and South America. There are a lot of folks who will twist their scriptures and their sacred texts in order to support these horrific atrocities that they’ve committed later on.
I think the same goes here. I think there are some folks that we absolutely can engage with and shift from a position of, no, we need to be—we need these anti-sodomy laws globally, or we need to not pass anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ community, et cetera. There are folks that can be moved from that position to a position of support, or even a position of neutrality, which is progress, right? It’s not perfect, but it’s progress, right? It gets us closer to where we’re trying to go.
And I do absolutely believe that there are people who cannot be convinced, unfortunately, or who refuse to be convinced. But when the majority of people of faith in the United States have arrived at a point where, even amongst the most conservative people, it is in the—or 50-something percent—sorry for the not precise number off the top of my head—50-something percent of Evangelical Americans, white Evangelicals, the most conservative group in the United States, support LGBTQ rights like the Equality Act. If the most conservative group—where it goes up to 81 percent of Latino/Hispanic/Latinx Catholics who also support LGBTQ comprehensive civil rights protect for LGBTQ people.
So we’re seeing a broad spectrum of support moving that direction. If we still have a small subgroup of people who disagree with that but are not able to influence policy to the degree to which it takes away your rights or my rights, I’m fine with that. I want to keep working on those issues, and I’ll get to that in a second, but I’m fine with that, as long as our rights are protected, the rights of our neighbors are protected, the rights particularly of transgender women of color, who are the most targeted and the most victimized by fatal violence in this country, Puerto Rico being one of the biggest epicenters for violence against the trans community.
What I think that communities of faith can do beyond legislative advocacy, beyond media messaging, communications, beyond the global advocacy work that we’re talking about, is intercommunal dialogue. Which does take place, right? You will find pockets of that. I think there just needs to be more of that. I want to see more progressive Christians sitting down with more conservative Christians and pressing the issue. Those conversations need to continue to happen. But in the meantime, while those conversations are happening, we’re trying to bring more people along. We deserve civil rights. We need our human rights. So that conversation will happen while the work is happening.
In the long run, we need to continue educating our faith communities. And that starts from the beginning. Early childhood education is the locus where this all begins. You can see this. The data will show this. Research will show this, whether it’s on issues of racial justice, or LGBTQI justice, and gender equity and justice. Across the spectrum, when you start with children and you begin educating children from an early age about the inherent dignity of all people, the rights of all people, and why we secure those rights, that’s where we win.
Which is why we see legislation around—at the state level around the United States—trying to prevent conversations, to ban conversations around racial justice and LGBTQI justice in schools. Because we know people who want to prevent this from happening know that if you teach children from an early age that when they become adults, they will advocate for legislation that reflects the dignity and human rights and civil rights that we’re pressing.
And that is what we need. That kind of legislation is what we need to protect trans folks. I think to get to that last piece of the question. There’s minimal—when you look at—or, last year there were over thirty state legislatures around the United States that were pushing forward anti-trans bills, whether that was anti-trans sports bills, anti-trans medical bills. Several were successful. This year we’re seeing a new slate of hate across the legislatures trying to achieve the same ends. Trying to prevent trans kids from playing in sports. Trying to prevent trans folks from getting access, particularly trans children, from getting access to the right kind of medical attention and care that they need, that affirms them and their gender.
Fighting against those and pushing for the right kind of hate crime legislation at the state and federal level will help protect trans folks in the long run, but it does come back, I think, to how do faith communities educate their own communities to stop this kind of violence from taking place?
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Michael.
Let’s go to Bud Heckman. Bud had written a very long question. So, Bud, if you could ask it yourself, I would appreciate it. And he’s with the Interfaith Funders Group. And it would be great to hear from, Bud.
HECKMAN: Thank you. I just will make it shorter. I understood when there was a success in making a change in the U.S. context with regard to how people felt about LGBTQ issues, that there was a concerted effort on the part of LGBTQ rights organizations to stop framing things in terms of rights, and to start framing them in terms of trying to build empathy on a one-on-one basis. And that it was only when that sort of shift happened that there was a seismic shift in U.S. culture around LGBTQ issues. I’m wondering about your sort of understanding of that, and how that plays out in other contexts now. In terms of the use of language, how do you frame the issues both here in the U.S. and then in other countries? Assumingly so it’s on a country-by-country and culture-by-culture basis in terms of the tactics and the ways you go about doing it.
VAZQUEZ: No, absolutely. I think part of the issue is that the United States for a long time, there has been this false idea that if you afford rights to a group that has previously not be afforded those rights, that in order to do so you must take away the rights of another group, right? Which is why you often see the pushback against movements for racial justice and equity for racial minority groups around the United States. The pushback often in white communities there is a fear—there is a real, felt fear—a documented fear that giving Black people basic fundamental human rights is going to take away from the rights of white folks, right? I think the same thing has happened with LGBTQ rights similarly. In that if we give LGBTQ people rights then straight people aren’t going to have the same rights. Or if we let you—if we let y’all get married, then my marriage means something different, or it means something less than.
And so I think of the issues around the rights language and messaging has been around this fundamental idea—this pervasive idea that I need to give up rights in order for someone else to gain them, instead of being, if we all get human rights, or if we all get fundamental human rights afforded to us, then we all have that. No one is losing out on civil rights protections because someone else was given them, right? And so the empathy languages worked significantly because it reframed some of that for folks. And I, as a communications specialist and strategist, I absolutely support shifting our language and our—the ways in which we message things in order to achieve our ends. As much as necessary. As long as we don’t miss the heart of the matter.
I don’t think that shifting our language to soften it—which is not what I’m saying what you’re suggesting here—but softening our language or shifting it that gets away from the point, that people deserve rights is ultimately helpful. Because I think we need to—I think America in particular needs to grow up and understand that giving human rights to all people is not a threat to American democracy, but it is what upholds America and what makes America the nation that it claims to be. And I think that—again, recontextualizing that for a global context, I think that’s a particular issue in the United States, where in other countries it’s going to be significantly different. We were talking about earlier with Julia’s question, where pragmatic and contextualized, 100 percent.
But at least when it comes to the United States, I think we need to hold onto this language because of rights advocacy, because if we don’t, we lose the heart of what we’re pushing for. Not just for LGBTQ people, but our broader spectrum of advocacy for civil rights protections.
FASKIANOS: Great. Waiting for additional questions, but, Michael, as we’ve seen what’s gone on in this country around Black Lives Matter, the killing of George Floyd, that has really affected our credibility and our standing in the world, that we’re—we are not abiding by human rights here at home. And so what should we be doing to put us back or try to take back this space as a leader on the stage in promoting human rights, and the fundamental rights and dignity of all people?
VAZQUEZ: Yeah. Thank you. I love that question because I think we’ve always—the United States has for a long time tried to position itself as a leader on human rights globally, while we see an epidemic of violence against transgender people, specifically transgender women of color. An epidemic of violence against the Black community. State-sanctioned police violence that continues to take the lives of our community. And yet, we’re sanctioning, or condemning foreign governments for their human rights abuses.
And I think what has allowed other human rights abuses to take place globally, even when the United States has condemned them, is these nations look back and are, well, look at what you do to the Black community in the United States. How dare you come and tell us what to do with our minority groups, or with these people that we don’t like? Because y’all don’t like a whole list of people, right? And you treat them like you don’t like them, or you treat them horrifically, right?
So, again, I’d say legislation is not the end-all, be-all, right, cure for our advocacy work. It’s not the end-all, be-all of our organizing work. But I do think legislation like the Breathe Act, which would reimagine—which reimagines and reframes criminal justice and how we respond to the needs of our communities, that would help end, again not the end-all, be-all, but that would help shift and end in some ways the violence we see—police violence we see against the Black community, and move forward an agenda of justice and equity.
Likewise, the Equality Act would do the same for LGBTQ people of color, LGBTQ people more broadly. And what it does—when we say, I’m going to make sure that everyone has voting rights, or I’m going to make sure our criminal justice system is not one that arbitrarily murders people in the street for no reason and no justification, and then gets away with it. I’m going to make sure that LGBTQ people aren’t kicked out of housing simply for being LGBTQ, right?
When the United States itself does that, it sets a standard for the rest of the world in what it means to be a nation that upholds human rights. I think the United States could be that. I absolutely think that this could be the place. But there are other nations that are beating us out on this. There are other nations in Europe that achieved LGBTQ human rights before we did and are pushing the human rights for LGBTQ people much faster and more comprehensively than the United States is. And so if we want to be a leader in the world of human rights, not just on LGBTQ rights but broadly speaking, we need to make sure that our legislation, our practices, reflect the same rhetoric that we are pushing on other countries.
We cannot in good faith—this is my opinion, I welcome pushback here—but we cannot in good faith condemn Ghana, or the Republic of Georgia, or other countries that have cracked down on LGBTQ people when we have our own epidemic of violence against transgender people, when we have states where it is legal to kick someone out of housing, or it has been legal to fire someone simply for being transgender. Where in matters of public accommodation people can be denied services simply for being LGBTQ. What right do we have to condemn foreign governments when we ourselves have not gotten our act together?
And so I’m absolutely with you. I think if we can move these pieces of legislation forward and reframe our own human rights and civil rights practices at home, then we could actually become the human rights leader globally that we claim to be.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. And we’re coming to the end of our time. And I just, as you know, we have a lot of religious leaders on this call and have faith-based organizations. You started talking about the power of the storytelling and truth—being the bearers of truth in this community. So as we close, what would you say to this group about the most important information they share with their communities to safeguard the rights of the LGBTQ+ community? And maybe even just how to work across faith traditions and really reach out to the religious right, who may be pushing the anti-LGBTQ+ agenda?
VAZQUEZ: Absolutely. For folks—I mean, the first thing that comes to mind, particularly for the folks here who have been in this work for quite some time—probably longer than me—I want to thank you. First and foremost, thank you for the work that you’ve done in your particular context, within the U.S. or around the world, thank you. And please don’t stop. That’s the most critical thing I’ve often told folks. We need people to keep going, which means if there are any funders on the call, please fund the people who are trying to do this work.
The resources necessary to continue this work is essential. I’ve often seen folks leave this work particularly because the resources to do it don’t exist. Which is why—the battle against the religious right’s advocacy against LGBTQ people domestically and globally has been so successful. That is something that they’ve invested in heavily. What we need to do is invest heavily in what is the majority opinion that LGBTQ people have inherent dignity and value, and thus are worth having their rights safeguarded and enshrined in legislation, et cetera.
To other folks who are maybe thinking about getting into the work—like, oh, I just came here to find out a little bit more, maybe. Please do it. Or please mobilize your community. Please challenge your more conservative partners and colleagues, or folks across the aisle, or across the pews from you. And encourage them. Have the challenging conversation I have often heard from folks who say, well, I know so-and-so is a prominent conservative leader and they’re teetering on their opinion, but publicly they’re still anti-LGBTQ, et cetera. I’m, like, well, did you challenge them? Have you pushed them? Have you pressed them? It’s, like, no, it’s just so sensitive.
I’m like, what is sensitive is the fact that there are so many transgender deaths that we have to report annually. What is sensitive is the fact that there are still countries around the world that will execute an individual for being LGBTQ. What is sensitive is that it is a crime still places, or there are domestic issues that are still at hand. That is a sensitive issue. Someone who is not LGBTQ feeling a type of way and shaking on their position is not sensitive. They need to be encouraged, and challenged, and pressed forward to change their opinions and to advocate publicly for a shift on human rights, both domestically and abroad.
FASKIANOS: That is a great way to end. Thank you very much. We really appreciate your taking the time to be with us today. It was a rich discussion. Thanks to all of you for your comments and questions. I encourage you to follow Michael Vazquez on Twitter at @mvsebastian. So please go there. And as always, follow our Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion. And please go to CFR.org for research and analysis on other issues.
So we look forward to reconvening again. But as always, send us your suggestions for future webinars to [email protected], and other feedback you’d like to provide. We look forward to your continued participation. And again, Michael Vazquez, a big thank you for doing this.
VAZQUEZ: Thank you. Thank you, everyone.